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U.S. halts secretive drone programme with Turkey over Syria incursion

The Address | Benghazi – Libya

WASHINGTON – The United States has halted a secretive military intelligence cooperation programme with Turkey that for years helped Ankara target Kurdish PKK militants, four U.S. officials told Reuters.

The U.S. decision to indefinitely suspend the programme, which has not been previously reported, was made in response to Turkey’s cross-border military incursion into Syria in October, the U.S. officials said, revealing the extent of the damage to ties between the NATO allies from the incident.

The U.S. officials, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the United States late last year stopped flying the intelligence collection missions that targeted the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both the United States and Turkey classify as terrorists.

The U.S. military had carried out the missions using unarmed drone aircraft, which one official said were flown out of Turkey’s Incirlik air base, where the U.S. military has a significant presence. The base is also a key hub for U.S. spy agencies operating in the region.

The U.S. drone flights that took place within the programme, in place since 2007, often zeroed in on mountainous territory in northern Iraq near the Turkish border, another official said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman did not directly comment on any specific programs but noted that the United States has designated the PKK a terrorist organisation since 1997.

“We have supported Turkey in their fight against the PKK in many ways for decades. As a matter of policy, we do not provide details on operational matters,” the spokeswoman said, when asked about a halt in assistance.

A State Department spokesperson said the United States does not comment on intelligence matters.

Officials from the Turkish defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but a Turkish official confirmed the programme was stopped.

The halt to U.S. assistance will test the limits of Turkey’s military and intelligence capabilities at a time when its forces are already deployed on multiple fronts in northern Syria and as Ankara mulls deeper engagement in Libya.

“This makes the anti-PKK campaign more difficult and more costly for Turkey,” one of the four U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.

It also adds to a laundry list of grievances between the United States and Turkey, including Ankara’s purchase of Russian air defences and broader splits over the war in Syria, despite what appears to be a strong relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan.

“In recent years, Turkey has not been struggling to obtain the information it needs through drones it produces itself,” the Turkish official said. “However, as an ally the steps taken on this issue do not contribute to ties between the two countries.”

(Reuters)

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