WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Turkey has agreed to allow U.S. planes to launch air strikes against Islamic State militants from the U.S. air base at Incirlik, close to the Syrian border, U.S. defense officials said on Thursday.
The decision, disclosed a day after a telephone call between President Barack Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, follows long-time reluctance by Ankara to become engaged in the fight against Islamist militants.
Turkey has faced increasing insecurity along its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria. Earlier on Thursday it fired tank shells across the frontier after fire from Islamic State militants killed a Turkish soldier near Kilis, an area where Ankara had recently sent reinforcements.
The ability to fly manned bombing raids out of Incirlik, a major base used by both U.S. and Turkish forces, against targets in nearby Syria could be a big advantage. Such flights have had to fly mainly from the Gulf.
The U.S. officials declined to give details of the agreement with Turkey, and spokesmen declined to confirm it officially, saying it was up to Turkey to confirm.
Turkish officials declined to comment on the report.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama and Erdogan agreed to “deepen” cooperation in the fight against Islamic State militants.
Asked specifically about the use of Incirlik, he told reporters: “I’m not able to talk about some of those issues because of specific operations security concerns.”
The fighting on the Turkish border came days after a suicide bombing believed to be by Islamic State in the Turkish border town of Suruc killed 32 people, touching off waves of violence.
The incident sparked fears of the Syria conflict spilling onto Turkish soil and further inflaming the volatile Kurdish minority. The prime minister’s office in Ankara issued a statement saying the country would take all necessary steps to protect national security.
Although a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, Ankara has refused to take a frontline role and said only the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - not just air strikes on the radical Islamists - can bring peace.
Turkey’s stance has frustrated some of its NATO allies, including the United States, whose priority is fighting Islamic State rather than Assad. The allies have urged Turkey to do more to prevent its border being used as a conduit to Syria by foreign jihadists.
Reporting by Emily Stephenson and David Storey; Editing by Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker