VREDEPEEL, The Netherlands (Reuters) - Dozens of camouflaged military trucks streamed out of an army base in the southern Netherlands on Monday carrying Patriot missiles to defend Turkey from what the Dutch defense chief called the real threat of missile attack from Syria.
Five convoys totaling 160 vehicles ferried two Dutch Patriot missile batteries from an army base near Eindhoven to the port of Eemshaven, where they will be loaded onto a ship for a two-week voyage to Turkey.
The Netherlands, Germany and the United States are each sending two Patriot missile batteries and up to 400 troops to Turkey after Ankara asked for NATO’s help to bolster security along its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria.
The border has become a point of tension in the 21-month insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, with Syrian government shells frequently landing inside Turkish territory.
Turkey has repeatedly scrambled war planes along the frontier, fanning fears that the civil war could spread and further destabilize the region.
The Dutch, German and U.S. Patriots will be stationed around three southeastern Turkish cities.
The Dutch Chief of Defence, General Tom Middendorp, said the threat to Turkey posed by Syrian missiles should not be underestimated.
“We want to prevent what could amount to large numbers of casualties among innocent civilians,” he told reporters.
He said Syria was shelling its own population and also firing medium-range missiles.
“These Scud missiles have a potential range of hundreds of kilometers, so they could easily hit Turkish cities. Besides explosives, they can also carry other types of payload, for instance chemical warheads,” he said.
Western governments say Syria has chemical weapons but the Syrian government says that, if it had such weapons, it would not use them against its people.
Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Buis, who will command the Dutch missile unit in Turkey, said a Patriot could be fired “within a minute” if an incoming missile was detected.
The Dutch Patriots are expected to leave Eemshaven on Tuesday and arrive in Turkey around January 22, he said, standing in front of a truck-mounted Patriot launcher. He expected the Dutch Patriots to be operational by January 26.
An advance party of Dutch and German troops will fly to Turkey on Tuesday to prepare for the arrival of the Patriots with the main body of European soldiers arriving later.
U.S. troops and equipment have already begun arriving in Turkey. The Pentagon said on Friday the United States aimed to have its Patriots in place by mid-January.
NATO approved Turkey’s request for Patriots in early December in what it called a purely defensive move.
Syria, Iran and Russia have criticized NATO’s decision, but Middendorp denied that sending the Patriots carried any risk of escalation or of NATO getting dragged into the Syrian conflict.
The Dutch Patriots will be stationed around Turkey’s fourth largest city of Adana, which is 120 km (75 miles) from the Syrian border, so it would be out of the Patriots’ range to hit a target over Syrian territory, according to Middendorp.
Each of the Dutch Patriot batteries consists of four PAC-2 model launching stations, each of which can be loaded with up to four missiles, as well as two more advanced PAC-3 launching stations, each with a total capacity of eight missiles, plus radar and other equipment.
The PAC-2 missile works by exploding close to an incoming missile while the more advanced PAC-3 hits the incoming missile directly.
“It is like shooting with a bullet and hitting a bullet,” Buis said.
Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Angus MacSwan