Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has targeted the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) for “abusing” the deaths of 35 people near Turkey's border with northern Iraq in a botched military airstrike last week, accusing the party of trying to handle the issue through an ethnicity-based approach.
In an angry speech delivered at his party's parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, Erdoğan said: “Whoever makes the issue an ethnic one by saying 35 Kurds were killed, they are trampling all kinds of humanitarian values. … We approach this incident as 35 people losing their lives in Uludere. We regard this issue as 35 citizens, 35 brothers who lost their lives. But they [the BDP] are making the issue an ethnic one. …. Those who classify the deaths as Kurdish and Turkish are following the path of the devil.”
The prime minister said one of the victims is the brother of a member of his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) who serves as the head of one of the local women's branches. “Did you ever hear us exploit this?” he asked.
The prime minister went on to criticize the BDP for draping party flags over the coffins of the victims during the funeral ceremonies. “What is draping party flags over the coffins other than hypocrisy and opportunism? … You cannot even go to the toilet unless your armed masters loosen your strings,” Erdoğan said in an apparent accusation that the BDP takes orders from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Turkish warplanes mistakenly killed 35 villagers on Wednesday night. The government later acknowledged that the victims were smugglers, not terrorists. The military issued a statement that said the warplanes had targeted the group based on intelligence that suggested a group of armed terrorists would be heading toward the Turkish border to stage attacks on the military. The victims were from the villages of Ortasu, Gülyazı and Ortabağ in the Uludere district of the southeastern province of Şırnak.
Erdoğan once again termed the incident tragic and stressed that the deaths are being investigated by both military and civilian prosecutors. Noting that he met with Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel to discuss the issue on Monday, Erdoğan said the military chief once again assured him the incident will be thoroughly investigated. “I would like to once again thank Mr. Özel and the commanders in the region for the sensitivity they have shown on the issue,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay made a lengthy statement in the afternoon about the government's approach to Uludere. He noted that many of the previous attacks, in which dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed, were staged by terrorists that crossed the border with mules and looked like smugglers. He said the dead are also “our sons” and reiterated that the government was working on a compensation plan for the victims' families. He also said security forces will determinedly continue the fight against terrorism.
Investigations into the attack
In related developments, Gen. Özel has demanded a full military investigation into the attack. The Military Prosecutor's Office will conduct a separate investigation of the incident, with military sources stressing that the administrative and judicial investigations into the killings are separate probes. The Military Prosecutor's Office has requested information from the General Staff on all stages of the military operation that took place last Wednesday, including footage from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the region. Military investigators and crime scene investigators from the police force are currently examining the site of the airstrike, near the border with Iraq, from where the villagers who were killed were trying to bring in cigarettes and diesel to sell in Turkey.
How such a mistake could occur still begs answers. No resignations have taken place over the airstrike.
The prosecutor will investigate claims that military commanders in the region knew of the smuggling routes and turned a blind eye to the practice as it is the only source of income for the poverty-stricken region, and that the airstrike proceeded despite notifications from local commanders that those who would be targeted were ordinary villagers.
Two civilian and specially authorized prosecutors assigned by the Diyarbakır Prosecutor's Office are also conducting an investigation. On Monday, the two prosecutors visited the villages of Ortasu and Gülyazı, which lost villagers in the attack. In addition to listening to eyewitnesses, the prosecutors examined the written orders for the attack as well as other related documents. They visited the Şırnak 23rd Border Brigade Command, which is one of four centers in the area to which UAVs transmit images. The prosecutors have seized some of the documents after viewing footage recorded by UAVs.
The Şırnak Governor's Office is also conducting its own investigation. Governor Vahdettin Özkan said they were trying to complete the investigation in the shortest time possible. “If there was any dereliction of duty, it should be detected in the shortest possible time. We feel the pain of [the victims' families] in our hearts. This is how we see this.”
Civilian prosecutors are also investigating an assault on District Governor Naif Yavuz on Saturday, when he was visiting the families. Yavuz was attacked by an angry group, whose members were provoked by local Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) officials, according to witnesses who asserted that the attackers were not from Uludere. Seven people were detained on Monday, including one who resides in Silopi, another Şırnak district, and has no relatives in the Uludere area.
Also on Tuesday, Mehmet Öcalan, the brother of the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan, visited Ortasu village to extend his condolences to the families. BDP officials accompanied Öcalan, who said: “We heard about the incident in the media. These innocent people died for no reason.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said the government was convinced the airstrike was not the result of malicious intent, noting that they weren't going to apologize but reiterated earlier statements that the villagers would be compensated for the deaths.
During a meeting between Gen. Özel and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday, according to the Habertürk daily, Özel submitted a full report to the prime minister, saying the airstrike had occurred in the Sinat-Haftanin region in northern Iraq, where terrorist activity is common. He also noted that more than one intelligence source confirmed reports that PKK terrorists had plans to infiltrate Turkey disguised as smugglers. The group also moved in single file in an orderly fashion much like PKK terrorists do, according to UAV images. Özel also noted that the group ignored signal rockets and warning artillery shots to surrender and continued moving in spite of the warnings.
Özel's report also says the airstrike was conducted by F16 fighter jets and not by UAVs as some have asserted. The army chief also noted that smugglers usually move in groups that aren't too large but with many beasts of burden, and the Uludere group was large in size, with a smaller number of mules per person, another factor leading to their being mistaken for terrorists. The report also recalled that terrorists have come in through the border looking like smugglers before attacking border outposts.
Civil society organizations deny airstrike on villagers was accidental
A group of influential civil-society organizations and professional unions on Tuesday said last Wednesday's airstrike that killed 35 in the southeast was staged in full knowledge that the border-crossers were smugglers.
The Human Rights Association (İHD), Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK), Turkey Peace Council (TBM), Turkey Human Rights Foundation (TİHV), Turkish Doctors Union (TTB), Contemporary Journalists' Association (ÇHD), Confederation of Revolutionary Workers' Unions (DİSK) and human-rights group Mazlumder held a joint press conference on Tuesday.
İHD President Öztürk Türkdoğan, who made the statement on behalf of the group, alleged: “This is a massacre. This is openly an extrajudicial execution.” He continued: “Such a mistake cannot be. This was carried out with intent and malice.”
He denied an earlier point made by Özel during a briefing to the prime minister that warnings had been issued prior to the airstrike. He also claimed that the military units in the region were unhelpful after the bombing. “The villagers called [officials] for help after the bombing. Not a single military unit went to help. The villagers had to retrieve the bodies themselves.”
Türkdoğan demanded that the airstrike not be dismissed as an accident. “Firstly, the government should take on the political responsibility here. If this is being treated as an operation of domestic security, the minister of interior affairs should resign. But given that it occurred near the border and in a military zone, the Chief of General Staff and the relevant force commander [the Air Forces commander] should be removed from his post. Everyone who was in a position of authority during the conduct of this operation should be removed from their posts for the well-being of the investigation.”
He also demanded that the incident be taken up by Parliament's Human Rights Investigation Committee.