Army denies Aktütün flop, but questions linger on

Army denies Aktütün flop, but questions linger on

Chief of Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ shaking the hand of Efkan Ala, the undersecratary of the Prime Ministry, prior to the historic Cabinet meeting yesterday, where generals briefed the Cabinet on anti-terror efforts.

October 28, 2008, Tuesday/ 18:41:00
In a rare move, a top commander appeared before the media to respond to accusations that a series of intelligence and command failures led to a deadly attack on a border outpost this month, killing 17 soldiers, but left a key question unanswered.

The press conference, held by Land Forces Commander Gen. Işık Koşaner, came as Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ attended a regular Cabinet meeting to brief the prime minister and ministers on counterterrorism efforts, a first in the history of government-military relations. Koşaner held the press conference at General Staff headquarters to announce the results of a long-awaited investigation into the Oct. 3 attack, which critics blamed on intelligence failure. Though he dismissed most of the accusations, the top commander left the key questions on how dozens of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists arrived in the scene of the attack or how their arrival in the area went unnoticed.

An angry Başbuğ told a press conference on Oct. 15 that accusations against the military were being investigated but blamed critics in the media, saying they would be “responsible for the blood that has been shed and will be shed.” Announcing the results of the investigation less than two weeks after Başbuğ’s media appearance, Gen. Koşaner said the probe found that there was no flaw in intelligence, force deployment or command.

Koşaner said the UAV took images from 1:58 p.m. to 4:10 p.m. but was unable to provide reliable images as the vehicle had to be kept a certain distance away from the area of clashes. Koşaner said small terrorist groups of three or five people were hit by shelling and mortar fire, following which they disappeared from the screens. At 1:04 p.m., a gendarmerie team on a reconnaissance mission encountered a terrorist group, following which the PKK attack started in full force. Koşaner did not explain in his lengthy statement when the terrorist group, which media reports said was as large as 300 people, arrived in the area.

Days after the Oct. 3 attack, liberal daily Taraf published images and reports that it said belonged to gendarmerie intelligence, indicating that the military had known about the attack on the Aktütün outpost well before the terrorists opened fire on the soldiers. The images published by Taraf showed figures approaching the area through the northern Iraqi border. Images from Oct. 3, taken from a UAV, show a group of individuals laying mines at around 9:35 a.m. local time, about three-and-a-half hours before the attack. The group gets larger in the following images as more and more of these individuals take their positions on hilltops in preparation for the attack.

Koşaner, however, said the area was 17.5 kilometers from the Aktütün outpost and considering that the maximum range of the mortars is eight kilometers, these individuals could not have posed a threat to the outpost. But despite a lack of an imminent risk to the Aktütün post, the military units continued to gather more images of the group in the following hours, waiting for the group to get larger, and then two F-16 jet fighters were sent to drop bombs. Koşaner said images of such activities near the border are an everyday routine and that the PKK groups are either shelled or bombed by jet fighters when such images are acquired.

Another UAV image from Oct. 2 showed terrorists armed with weapons approaching the Aktütün post. Taraf initially said the group was as close as one kilometer from Aktütün, although it later published a correction that the distance was not accurate. Koşaner said the area was a village in northern Iraq near the Turkish border and that the individuals seen in the images were villagers cultivating farms there.

Koşaner also dismissed accusations based on UAV images from Sept. 5 that a group of 80 terrorists headed from the PKK's Kandil Mountain bases in Iraq to the town of Şemdinli, where the Aktütün post is located. He said the images are not reliable since it was not possible to either count the number of terrorists in the group from such a long distance or to know they were heading to Şemdinli, about 100 kilometers from Kandil.

Taraf's publication of the images and intelligence reports from military units for several days in the aftermath of the attack caused a public uproar and sparked a heated debate over the methods of the counterterrorism fight, which has been under way for almost three decades and caused more than 30,000 deaths. Başbuğ's press conference on Oct. 15 raised even more questions as the chief of general staff, flanked by four top commanders, responded to accusations by a controversial call on the media "to stand in the right position." Soon after, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he stood in the right position, criticizing the media accusation of the military.

Taraf undeterred

But Taraf did not give in. Taraf editors, contacted by Today's Zaman, were studying "contradictions" in the military statements made over the past weeks. Although Koşaner insisted that Bayraktepe, a hilltop where the military deployed backup troops to protect the Aktütün outpost, was never seized by the PKK during the clashes, earlier statements by the military had in fact suggested that Bayraktepe was controlled by the PKK for a while.

The controversy around the Aktütün attack is reminiscent of a debate that erupted after a similar attack on a border outpost in Dağlıca last year, when Taraf again published documents showing military negligence in the attack. Contrary to the Dağlıca case, however, the military this time issued a lengthy statement to document all the accusations and responded to them almost one by one.

The debate also raises questions on the source of the media reports. Taraf never hinted at the identity of its source, but spoke of "a few good men" in the military, meaning that the leak stems from the military itself.

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