Thirty-five people were killed in an overnight airstrike by Turkish warplanes in southeastern Turkey, near the Iraqi border, local officials said on Thursday.
"We have 30 corpses, all of them are burned. The state knew that these people were smuggling in the region," said Fehmi Yaman, the mayor of Uludere in Şırnak province.
Şırnak Governor Vahdettin Özkan told the state-run Anatolia news agency that initial information he received suggests more than 20 people were killed. Noting that it is still not clear how the incident took place, he said a crisis desk had been set up at the governor's office to deal with the issue. "A prosecutor and police were dispatched to the scene. The incident is being investigated in detail," he said.
A statement from the Şırnak Governor's Office later in the day said 35 people were killed and another was injured in the airstrikes.
The Turkish military released a statement on Thursday and said the area which was struck was the Sinat-Haftanin region of northern Iraq, where the main Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) bases are located and which has no civilian inhabitants.
“Administrative and judicial investigations are under way and procedures are being followed with respect to the incident,” the General Staff said.
Recalling that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have been conducting cross-border operations in northern Iraq since 2007 in line with a mandate which was granted to it by the Turkish Parliament in 2007 and extended every year since then, the statement said the military recently received intelligence suggesting that senior PKK leaders ordered the group to retaliate for recent military operations and that they had sent a large number of terrorists to the Sinat-Haftanin region for this purpose.
“As a result of intelligence received from various sources and technical analyses carried out, we understood that terrorist groups, which also included senior leaders, gathered in the region and that they were readying to stage attacks on our outposts and bases along the border; the relevant troops were warned,” the statement said. Noting that the military had stepped up aerial surveillance of the region after more intelligence came about possible attacks on military targets, the General Staff said an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) detected a group heading towards the Turkish border with northern Iraq at 6:39 p.m. on Wednesday. “Considering that the area where the group was spotted was a region frequently used by terrorists and that there was overnight activity towards our borders, we decided the group should be fired upon and the target was hit between 9:37 and 10:24 p.m.,” the statement said.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said in a statement released on Thursday that 35 people had been killed, adding that party leaders were heading to the area.
BDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş argued that what took place in Uludere was “an obvious massacre.” He said all of the victims were villagers, including children and high school students. He said the villagers were living on smuggling and that the officials in the region also knew that. The BDP leader recalled earlier remarks of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said a government which kills its own people loses its legitimacy in reference to embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “I am using these exact words with respect to Erdoğan,” he said. Demirtaş added that the BDP had declared a three-day period of mourning for the victims.
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.
The incident comes amidst recently stepped-up military operations against the terrorist PKK, which have been regarded as successful by many security experts. The number of PKK terrorists who have surrendered or were captured has increased in the past few months. Dozens of terrorists who refused to surrender were killed in November and December. Turkish losses were minimal in these encounters, and no civilians were killed.
"There were rumors that the PKK would pass through this region. Images were recorded of a group crossing last night; hence, an operation was carried out," a security official said.
"We could not have known whether these people were PKK members or smugglers," he added.
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.
People loaded the corpses onto donkeys which were led down the hillside to be loaded into vehicles to be taken to hospital in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country.
Security sources said those killed were carrying canisters of diesel on mules and that 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 PKK, regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States, launches attacks on Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey from hideouts in the remote Iraqi mountains.
Turkey and Iran have often skirmished with the terrorists 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.
It was one of the deadliest attacks since the PKK took up arms in 1984 in a conflict in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.