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Turkey: US-led Campaign to Train Syrian Rebels Delayed

FILE - Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu listens to translation of a question in a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran, Dec. 17, 2014.

A campaign to train Syrian opposition forces to fight hardline Islamic State militants, which was due to start this month, has been delayed by Washington, Turkey's foreign minister said on Friday.

U.S. officials have said they plan to train about 5,000 Syrian fighters annually for three years as part of a program to counter Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. However, details on the program have been thin, and it appears unlikely to start this month.

“Because of U.S. [geographic] distance, there has been a minor delay but everything is fine both politically and technically,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with Turkey's NTV television, adding there was “no delay” from the Turkish side.

He did not elaborate on why Washington's geographical distance had shifted the original timeline.

Ankara hopes the training will also bolster the weakened and divided Syrian opposition in its war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey would also be open to contributions from a third country to the program, Cavusoglu said, a day after Britain's Defense Minister said London would send around 75 military personnel to join the training.

“No decision has been made on this. But if such a proposal comes from Britain, we would assess this and in principal we would not say 'No' to this, we would be sympathetic,” Cavusoglu said.

Asked whether Turkey and the United States had agreed on the deployment of armed drones to Turkey's Incirlik Airbase, Cavusoglu said: “If there would be a need for more drones, our military would make the decision but we are not at that stage yet.”

The U.S. Air Force has remotely piloted aircraft stationed at the base near the Syrian border, which have been used for surveillance.

Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, refusing to take a frontline military role despite its 1,200 km (750-mile) border with Iraq and Syria unless there is a strategy which includes the removal of Assad.

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