ISTANBUL // Nato said yesterday it was ready to deploy missile defence systems along the 900 kilometre border between Turkey and Syria, as fresh fighting broke out near a Turkish border town.
The deployment of Patriot missile batteries from Nato would mark the alliance's first direct involvement in the Syrian crisis, in which more than 35,000 people have been killed since protests against the rule of Bashar Al Assad began in March 2011.
Turkey, a former close ally of Syria, has become one of the fiercest critics of the Al Assad government. It has been talking to Nato for weeks about possible help against border violations from Syria.
According to news reports, the Patriots could be deployed in Turkey in a few weeks.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of Nato, said in Brussels yesterday that the alliance had not yet received a formal request from Turkey, but would "consider that as a matter of urgency". The appeal was expected to be made later yesterday.
"The situation on the Syria-Turkey border is of great concern," the Nato chief said. "We have all the plans ready to defend and protect Turkey if needed. The plans will be adjusted if necessary to ensure effective protection of Turkey."
Last month, a Syrian artillery shell killed five civilians in the border town of Akcakale in south-eastern Turkey, and Syrian air force jets last week attacked rebel positions just metres from the border in the town of Ceylanpinar.
Yesterday, fresh fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces erupted near Ceylanpinar, Tahrik Ablay, a secretary at Ceylanpinar municipality, said.
"This morning the fighting was very close to the border, and now it sounds like it is a few kilometres farther away [in Syria]," he said. Syrian rebels and government soldiers have been battling for control of a border crossing with Turkey close to Ceylanpinar.
The fighting underscored Turkey's argument that the civil war in Syria is threatening its security. Turkey's military has responded to Syrian cross-border shelling by firing artillery rounds at targets within Syria in recent weeks.
In June, Syria shot down a Turkish military reconnaissance jet over the eastern Mediterranean Sea, killing the two pilots.
Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, has also pointed to Syria's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons as a possible source of danger to his country.
Germany's defence minister, Thomas de Maiziere, said yesterday that Turkey could expect a positive answer to a request "to deploy Patriot missiles to the Turkish border".
Speaking in Brussels, Mr de Maiziere said the German response would depend on the details of any request. "But if we have a deployment of Patriots on the Turkish border, then this will happen with German soldiers".
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, also said last week that Washington would support Turkey's expected request.
"They have asked that we work with them to try to see what we can do to give them some missile defence capability," Mr Panetta told the Voice of America.
"We are working with them. Our hope is that we can help provide that kind of assistance," he said.
The US, Germany and the Netherlands are the Nato members with the most advanced Patriot systems.
In a possible hint of friction between Turkey and its allies, Mr Rasmussen insisted the Nato Patriots would not be used to create a no-fly-zone inside Syria. Ankara has been calling for such a zone as a way to stop Syrian attacks in the border region and allow some of the nearly 120,000 Syrian refugees in Turkish camps to go home.
"The Patriot missiles would be a purely defensive measure to defend Turkey," the Nato chief said.
* With additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse