ANKARA - Turkey on Thursday said it had detained an intelligence agent working for one of the states in the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State (IS) for helping three British teenage girls cross into Syria to join the jihadists.

The surprise revelation by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu appeared aimed at deflecting sustained criticism from Western countries that Turkey is failing to halt the flow of jihadists across its borders. ‘Do you know who helped those girls? He was captured. He was someone working for the intelligence (service) of a country in the coalition,’ Cavusoglu told the A-Haber channel in an interview published by the official Anatolia news agency.

A Turkish government official told AFP that the agent was arrested by Turkey’s security forces 10 days ago, and added that the person was not a Turkish citizen. ‘We informed all the countries concerned,’ the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘It’s not an EU member, it’s also not the United States. He is working for the intelligence of a country within the coalition,’ Cavusoglu added, without further specifying the nationality of the detained agent.

Cavusoglu said he had informed his British counterpart Philip Hammond of the development. ‘He told me ‘just as usual’,’ said Cavusoglu, without explaining further. Close friends Kadiza Sultana, 16, and 15-year-olds Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, crossed into Syria after boarding a flight from London to Istanbul on February 17. They took a bus from Istanbul to the southeastern Turkish city of Sanliurfa close to the Syrian border, from where they are believed to have crossed the frontier.

The disappearance of the girls - aged 15 and 16 - has alarmed Britain and raised questions about what motivates such young people to go to Syria.

- ‘Turkey always a scapegoat’ -

Turkey has long expressed irritation over the repeated criticism from the West that Ankara is not doing enough to stop jihadists and their sympathisers crossing into Syria.

The government official said the case of the missing girls showed closer cooperation was needed. ‘Turkey is always blamed as a scapegoat but this case has shown that we need more cooperation in the fight against Daesh,’ the official said, using an alternative name for IS.

‘The region’s security cannot be put on Turkey’s shoulders alone,’ the government official added. Turkey accused Britain last month of a ‘reprehensible’ delay in informing the Turkish authorities about the departure of the three teenage girls to its territory. Along with the US and EU states, Arabian peninsula nations including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been involved in the coalition against IS.

Turkey has played a limited role in the US-led coalition against the IS group due to differences with Washington, which for the moment prefers to focus on battling the jihadists while putting off any potential confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One consequence of the discord with the United States is Ankara’s refusal to open its Incirlik air base in southern Turkey for use by coalition combat aircraft fighting IS militants.

Cavusoglu on Thursday said Turkey would evaluate all its options, including the use of Incirlik, based on a ‘comprehensive strategy.’ Ankara has repeatedly called for the creation of a safe zone inside Syria for refugees fleeing the government offensive. Last month, the United States and Turkey signed a deal to train and equip thousands of moderate Syrian rebel forces. US special envoy John Allen, who is coordinating international efforts against IS, is due to travel to Ankara this week to meet with Turkish officials after a visit to Italy, the US State Department said in a statement.