ISTANBUL • Turkey has plunged into the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), rushing forces into the first direct combat with its militants on the Syrian border and granting permission for US warplanes to use two Turkish airbases for bombarding the group in Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed yesterday that the operations against ISIS would continue, after bombing raids on the extremists in Syria and the arrest of hundreds of suspected militants in Istanbul.
"The operations that were started today are not a single event but a process," he told reporters in Ankara in televised comments.
Mr Davutoglu said 297 people, including 37 foreigners, had been arrested in nationwide raids against suspected members of ISIS, Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other militant groups.
The government's change of tack ended a longstanding reluctance by Turkey, a Nato member and US ally, to play a more aggressive part in halting the expanding reach of ISIS in the Middle East.
US officials said it carried the potential to strike ISIS targets with far greater effect because of Turkey's proximity, which will allow more numerous and frequent bombings and surveillance missions.
Turkey, a vital conduit for ISIS' power base in Syria, had come under increased criticism for its inability - or unwillingness - to halt the flow of foreign fighters and supplies across its 800km border.
Up to now, Turkey has placed a priority on dealing with its own restive Kurdish population - which straddles the Syrian border in the south-east - and on the toppling of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, whom the Turks blame for creating the conditions in his war-ravaged country for the rise of Islamic extremism.
But now that extremism has increasingly menaced Turkey, where 1.5 million Syrian war refugees have also been straining the country.
A series of ISIS attacks on Turks, including a devastating suicide bombing a few days ago that officials have linked to the extremist group, may also have helped accelerate the shift in Turkey's position.
Turkish internal security officials had signalled their growing concern about ISIS with a series of large-scale raids in the past few weeks. Taking the fight to the ISIS in Syria, however, represents a huge leap.
"The terrorist organisation represents a national security threat to Turkey and we are working closely with our allies including the United States, to combat terrorism," a senior official in the Prime Minister's office said.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of government protocol restrictions, also emphasised that Turkey had not changed its position regarding Mr Assad in Syria.
Meanwhile, an Australian nurse alleged to have given medical assistance to ISIS was returning home under police escort.
Muslim convert Adam Brookman has not been charged with any crime, police said, but is subject to investigations that could see him face up to a decade in prison if convicted in a crackdown on radicalism launched by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Security analysts have put the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, travelling from scores of countries around the world, in the thousands.
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS