NATO visits southeast Turkey for Patriot missiles
A NATO team assessing possible sites for Patriot missiles to protect Turkey's border with Syria inspected military installations Wednesday in southeast Turkey, the state-run news agency reported.
NATO member Turkey asked allies to deploy the missiles as a defense against any aerial attack from Syria after mortar rounds and shells from Syria struck Turkish territory, killing five people.
Syria is believed to have several hundred ballistic surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads.
The NATO team visited military facilities in Malatya province, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Syrian border, the Anadolu Agency reported. The province is already home to an early warning radar that is part of NATO's missile defense system, which is capable of countering ballistic missile threats from Iran.
The visit came as the alliance said it would "favorably examine" Turkey's request for the air defense missiles but was awaiting the team's report on where to base them.
NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said the NATO team was expected to finish its work in the next few days and would feed its proposals to NATO's military authorities.
"This recommendation is a key element in the Council's decision-making process," she said, in reference to the North Atlantic Council, the alliance's governing body that is made up of the ambassadors of all its 28 members.
Romero said "allies with available Patriots have also made clear their intention to augment Turkey's defenses, subject to national processes."
Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. have the advanced PAC-3 model Patriots that Turkey wants to intercept ballistic missiles.
Once NATO and the national parliaments in Germany and the Netherlands approve the deployment of the Patriots, it will probably take at least another month before they become operational. Due to the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries - including their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities - they cannot be flown quickly by air to Turkey and will probably have to travel by sea, officials said.
The deployment of the Patriots is also likely to be discussed at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels next Tuesday and Wednesday.
Russia, meanwhile, has come out against the Patriot missile deployment, saying that basing the missiles so close to the border could worsen the bloodshed in Syria.
Syria is reported to have an array of artillery rockets, as well as short- and medium-range missiles - including Soviet-built SS-21 Scarabs and Scud-B missiles - in its arsenal. The latter are capable of carrying chemical warheads.
Syria's conflict started 20 months ago as an uprising against President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011.
Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed.