BRUSSELS: The United States for the first time Sunday deployed half a dozen F-16 warplanes to Turkey to help operations against the Islamic State group, US officials said.
The deployment marks the first time since an international coalition began bombing IS targets in Iraq and Syria a year ago that US jets will launch strikes from Turkey, following an accord signed with Ankara late last month.
“Six US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons deploy to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, to support the fight against ISIL,” the US mission to NATO said in a tweet, referring to a variant name for the jihadist group.
The arrival of the fighter jets in Turkey along with support equipment and around 300 personnel was confirmed by the US European Command in a statement.
“The detachment is from the 31st Fighter Wing based at Aviano Air Base, Italy. This follows Turkey’s decision to host the deployment of US aircraft conducting counter-ISIL operations,” it said.
“The United States and Turkey, as members of the 60-plus nation coalition, are committed to the fight against ISIL in the pursuit of peace and stability in the region.”
The US up to now has used armed drones from Incirlik to strike IS targets in Syria, supporting the Turkish air campaign against the militants.
According to media reports some 30 US fighters are due to arrive in the coming days to take part in the operation.
A member of NATO, Turkey had refused to participate actively in the anti-IS operations for fear of supporting the Kurdish fighters battling the jihadists on the border in Syria.
But Ankara changed its position after a deadly bombing blamed on IS on July 20 in Suruc, a Turkish town opposite the Syrian flashpoint of Kobane, that left 32 people dead.
If IS is proven to be responsible for the bombing, it would mark the group’s first strike on Turkish soil.
Turkey in response on July 24 launched a two-pronged “anti-terror” offensive against IS jihadists in Syria and also PKK militants after a wave of attacks inside the country.
But so far the Turkish raids have concentrated on the PKK targets, and only three of them have officially been identified as targeting IS.
The PKK’s insurgency for greater rights and autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish minority began more than 30 years ago and has left tens of thousands dead.
On Sunday the official Anatolia news agency reported that nearly 400 members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have been killed and hundreds injured in two weeks of Turkish airstrikes on positions in northern Iraq.