NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Britain's top defense official said Friday that the country's two military bases on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus are "more important than ever" in light of the turmoil gripping nearby Syria.
In the first-ever official visit to the island by a British defense secretary, Michael Fallon said British Tornado and Typhoon warplanes stationed at RAF Akrotiri have made 1,200 strikes against Islamic State group targets in Iraq and Syria in the last two years.
Fallon said coalition forces will this year aim to strike the "decisive blow" against the Islamic State group after pushing back its fighters in 2016, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by Cyprus' Defense Ministry.
Fallon said IS now holds less than 10 percent of territory in Iraq and that two million people have been liberated from IS rule.
Fallon also said the largely Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces are opening a second front against the IS stronghold in Raqqa, Syria and hailed the "larger role" Cyprus is playing in safeguarding security in the region. Britain has retained two bases on Cyprus after the island gained independence from colonial rule in 1960.
"We could have no better partner than our great friend Cyprus," Fallon said.
Fallon told the Associated Press after a meeting with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades that Britain is looking to extend an existing defense cooperation program with Cyprus to include maritime and aviation security.
Fallon repeated Britain's offer to cede nearly half of the 98 square miles (254 sq. kilometers) of bases territory if current talks aimed at reunifying the ethnically divided island are successful.
Cypriot government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said Britain recognizes Cyprus' upgraded role in bolstering regional security which must be further strengthened as part of an aimed-for reunification deal.