Turkish warplanes launched air strikes against suspected PKK militants in northern Iraq near the Turkish border overnight, the military said on Thursday, but local officials said the attack killed 35 smugglers who were mistaken for militants.
The Turkish military confirmed it had launched the strike after unmanned drones spotted suspected militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but said there were no civilians in the area and it was investigating the incident.
“We have 30 corpses, all of them are burned. The state knew that these people were smuggling in the region. This kind of incident is unacceptable. They were hit from the air,” said Fehmi Yaman, mayor of Uludere in Sirnak province.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said in a statement that 35 people had been killed and party leaders were heading for the area. Joint chairman Selahattin Demirtas said the party announced a three-day period of mourning.
“It is clear there was a massacre. They will try to cover it up … We will not allow them to cover it up,” Turkish media reported Demirtas as saying. The BDP said it would hold demonstrations in Istanbul and elsewhere to protest the deaths.
The Turkish military said it had learnt that the PKK had sent many militants to the Sinat-Haftanin area, where the strikes occurred in northern Iraq, to retaliate after recent militant losses in clashes.
Military units were warned that PKK groups there were planning attacks on security force border posts in southeast Turkey, prompting the military to increase border surveillance.
“It was established from unmanned aerial vehicle images that a group was within Iraq heading towards our border,” it said.
“Given that the area in which the group was spotted is often used by terrorists and that it was moving towards our border at night, it was deemed necessary for our air force planes to attack and they struck the target at 2137-2224 (1937-2024 GMT),” it said.
“The place where the incident occurred is the Sinat-Haftanin area in northern Iraq where there is no civilian settlement and where the main camps of the separatist terrorist group are located,” it said.
“An administrative and legal investigation and procedures regarding the incident are continuing,” it added.
The Turkish government, which has been battling the PKK since the group took up arms in 1984, was not immediately available for comment.
The governor of Sirnak province, Vahdettin Ozkan, told the state-run Anatolian news agency that more than 20 people had died and the incident was being investigated.
Smugglers or PKK militants?
Smuggling is an important source of income for locals in provinces along the Iraqi border, with many villagers involved in bringing fuel, cigarettes and other goods from Iraqi villages on the other side of the border.
PKK militants also cross the border in these areas.
“There were rumours that the PKK would cross through this region. Images were recorded of a crowd crossing last night, hence an operation was carried out,” a Turkish security official said.
“We could not have known whether these people were (PKK) group members or smugglers,” he said.
Television images showed a line of corpses covered by blankets on a barren hillside, with a crowd of people gathered around, some with their head in their hands and crying.
Donkeys carried corpses down the hillside to be loaded into vehicles to be taken to hospital.
Security sources said those killed were carrying canisters of diesel on mules and their bodies were found on the Iraqi side of the border.
They said those killed were from Uludere on the Turkish side of the border on what was a regular smuggling route.
The Firat news agency, which has close ties to the PKK, said that 17 people were still believed to be missing. It said those killed were aged around 17-20.
In northern Iraq, PKK spokesman Ahmet Deniz condemned the strike and said F-16 jets had bombed “a group of around 50 people taking goods” across the border and that 19 people were missing.
The PKK, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States, launches attacks on Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey from hideouts inside the remote Iraqi mountains.
In a statement before the latest incident, the National Security Council said after a regular meeting on Wednesday that recent security forces operations had dealt a major blow against the PKK and the military would continue to fight decisively against the militants.
Turkey and Iran have often skirmished with militants in the region and Turkish leaders vowed revenge in October with air and ground strikes after the PKK killed 24 Turkish soldiers in raids on military outposts in southeastern Turkey.