BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers who will man Patriot anti-missile batteries to protect Turkey from the spillover of Syria’s civil war began arriving in the country on Friday, the U.S. military said, but the missiles themselves are due later.
Turkey formally asked NATO for the missiles in November to bolster security along its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria, which has been torn by a 21-month insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey repeatedly has scrambled fighter jets along the frontier and responded in kind when Syrian shells came down inside its borders, fanning fears that the civil war could spread to destabilise the region.
About 400 U.S. personnel and equipment from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery, based at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, will arrive in Turkey over the next several days by U.S. military airlift, the U.S. European Command said on its website.
No U.S. Patriot missiles arrived on Friday, however, according to a military source, and it will be several weeks before the missiles, supplied by Germany and the Netherlands, get to Turkey.
The U.S. troops, who began arriving at Incirlik air base in Turkey, will man two U.S. Patriot batteries out of a total of six batteries that have been promised by NATO allies.
In Washington, a Pentagon spokeswoman said the first U.S. military personnel belonging to the Patriot unit began arriving in Turkey on Friday and more will arrive over the coming days.
The equipment would start arriving a few days later, with the aim of having the U.S. Patriot batteries in place by mid-January, she said.
Germany and the Netherlands are also providing two Patriot batteries and up to 400 troops each.
The German and Dutch missiles are expected to be loaded onto ships in European ports early next week but will take several weeks to get to Turkey.
A small advance team of German and Dutch soldiers will also fly to Turkey early next week to prepare the ground for the Patriots, with the bulk of the troops arriving later.
NATO foreign ministers approved Turkey’s request for the Patriot deployment in early December. The alliance said the move was aimed at defending Turkey and it had no intention of intervening in the Syrian civil war, but Syria, Iran and Russia criticised the decision.
NATO officials say the Syrian military has fired Scud-type missiles in recent weeks and they have voiced concern about chemical weapons Syria is believed to hold.
The Patriot missiles will be stationed near three southeastern Turkish cities.
The Netherlands will deploy its batteries near Adana, Turkey’s fourth-largest city, which lies around 100 km (60 miles) from the Syrian border. The joint Turkish-American Incirlik Air Base is just outside the city.
The U.S. will station its batteries near Gaziantep, a city of around 1.5 million people, which lies further to the east, some 60 km (35 miles) from the Syrian border.
Germany will send its batteries to Kahramanmaras, a city to the north of Gaziantep that has around half a million inhabitants and is some 150 km (95 miles) from Syria.
Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Michael Roddy