US 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 US military said, but the missiles themselves are due later.
Turkey formally asked NATO for the missiles in November to bolster security along its 900km border with Syria, which has been torn by a 21-month insurgency against Syrian 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 destabilize the region.
About 400 US 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 US military airlift, the US European Command said on its Web site.
However, no US Patriot missiles arrived on Friday, according to a military source, and it will be several weeks before the missiles, supplied by Germany and the Netherlands, get to Turkey.
The US troops, who began arriving at Incirlik air base in Turkey on Friday, will man two US Patriot batteries out of a total of six batteries that have been promised by NATO allies.
Syrian government warplanes and artillery pounded restive suburbs of Damascus on Friday and anti-regime activists said a car bomb targeted an intelligence building north of the capital.
Fighting in Syria’s civil war has flared in areas around Damascus as rebels seeking to topple al-Assad try to push into the city itself. The rebel advances in the suburbs threaten the government’s grip on its seat of power, prompting a punishing response from the military on rebel areas skirting the capital.
Anti-regime activists circulated a video they said showed an explosion near a military intelligence office in the town of Nabk, north of the capital. They had no information on casualties and the government did not comment on the bombing.
The blast came one day after a car bomb hit a gas station in the capital itself, killing 11 people, activists said. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, they could be guerrilla strikes by rebels groups who lack the force to battle al-Assad’s troops in the capital.
Syria’s 21-month conflict has turned into a bloody stalemate that the UN says has killed more than 60,000 people, and it warns the civil war could claim the lives of many more this year. International efforts to stop the fighting have failed so far, and although rebels have made gains in recent months, they still cannot challenge al-Assad’s hold on much of the country.
On Friday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government warplanes bombed suburbs of the capital, including Douma, where twin airstrikes killed more than a dozen people a day earlier.
The Observatory also reported the explosion near the military intelligence building in Nabk, about 50km north of Damascus.
A amateur video posted online showed a large explosion and a large gray cloud of smoke billowing from the area.