A U.S. military fires a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) during a military exercise with Philippine troops called "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) in Capas, Tarlac in northern Philippines April 14, 2016. REUTERS/Erik De Castro(reuters_tickers)
By Humeyra Pamuk
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The United States will deploy a rocket launcher system in Turkey near the border with a part of Syria held by Islamic State, Turkey's foreign minister was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted by the Haberturk newspaper as saying that the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) would arrive in May near a part of southeastern Turkey that has repeatedly been hit by rocket fire from Syria.
A senior U.S. military official confirmed the matter was under discussion but declined to comment further.
The deployment is part of a strategy to seal off an area around the Syrian town of Manbij, which could deprive Islamic State fighters of a logistical route they have used to bring in supplies and foreign recruits.
"We have reached an agreement with the Americans to seal off the Manbij region and our strategy on that is clear," Cavusoglu told Haberturk in an interview during a trip to Riyadh.
"As part of this deal, HIMARS systems will be arriving in Turkey's borders in May. Therefore we will be able to hit Islamic State in a more efficient way," he said.
Major General Peter Gersten, deputy commander for operations and intelligence for "Operation Inherent Resolve", the U.S.-led coalition which has been bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said the issue was being worked on but gave no details.
"That is a recent development that we have been working on and we are looking at how it is going to be installed ... we're working very closely with our strong partners in Turkey," he told a video briefing for reporters in Washington.
Turkey has repeatedly fired back at Islamic State in Syria in recent weeks after a surge in cross-border attacks on the Turkish town of Kilis, which has been peppered by rocket fire since January.
The Turkish military said it had destroyed two Islamic State missile launchers north of the Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday, in the second successive day of cross-border fire.
A three-storey building used by Islamic State militants was also destroyed some 12 km (7.5 miles) from the Turkish border, it said.
The retaliatory action has been limited to cross-border fire and artillery but the U.S. deployment, if confirmed, would expand its firing range and capabilities.
"To wipe out Islamic State from this region, we need to support the moderate opposition both from the air and ground. The range of our artillery is 40 km (25 miles), while HIMARS has a range of 90 km," Cavusoglu said.
The United States and Turkey have for months been discussing a joint military plan to drive Islamic State from the border area, but until now there has been little concrete sign of progress.
Speaking in parliament, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to fortify the border and take additional military measures against Islamic State, which he said had fired a total of 46 rockets into Kilis since January.
The state-run Anadolu agency late on Monday published photos of a military convoy carrying equipment and rocket launchers to Kilis for reinforcement. The Turkish government says 17 people have been killed in the town this year.
(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Ed Osmond)