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US troops arrive in Turkey to man Patriot missile batteries on Syria border

The first American military forces have "put boots on the ground" in Turkey to man Patriot missile batteries along the border with war-wracked Syria, defense officials told NBC News on Friday.

The officials said that 27 out of an eventual total of 400 American service members tasked with operating and supporting two Patriot missile batteries were already in Turkey. The Patriots are a defensive weapon used to intercept and shoot down incoming enemy combat aircraft and missiles.

In December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order to send two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey following cross-border artillery and fighter jet attacks by Syria against Turkish targets.

"We are deploying two Patriot batteries here to Turkey along with the troops that are necessary to man those batteries, so that we can help Turkey have the kind of missile defense it may very well need in dealing with threats that come out of Syria," Panetta told troops at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey in December.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order that sends Patriot missiles to NATO ally Turkey to defend its border with Syria. The US will also deploy about 400 Americans to operate the missiles. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

Turkey, a NATO member, has repeatedly scrambled jets along the countries' 560-mile joint frontier and responded in kind when shells from the 22-month-old Syrian conflict came down inside its borders, fanning fears that the civil war could spread and destabilize the region.

The widely expected decision followed similar steps by Germany and the Netherlands, which are also sending Patriot batteries.

PhotoBlog: Destruction, resistance in war-torn Syria

The three countries are the only NATO countries with the most modern type of Patriots and each had to approve separately its own commitment.

More than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria's uprising and civil war, the United Nations said this week, sharply raising the death toll estimate in a conflict that shows no sign of ending.

On Thursday, an explosion at a crowded gasoline station killed or wounded dozens of people in Syria's capital Damascus, according to opposition activists.

The United Nations is now raising the death toll in Syria to over 60,000 as fighting in the country continues. NBC's Frances Kuo reports.

The station reportedly was packed with people lining up for fuel, which has become scarce during the insurgency aimed at overthrowing President Bashar Assad.

The opposition Revolution Leadership Council in Damascus said the explosion was caused by a booby-trapped car, but there were conflicting figures on the death toll. Reuters put it at 11 killed, with at least 40 wounded. The Associated Press had the death toll at nine.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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