'General Staff knew Uludere victims were civilians ahead of strike'
Civilians killed in an airstrike near Şırnak province were buried in an Ortasu village cemetery on Dec. 30, 2011. (Photo: Today's Zaman)
The order for an airstrike which killed 34 civilians smuggling goods into Turkey over the border with Iraq in late December were given in full knowledge that the border-crossers were not Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorists, contrary to the initial explanation the General Staff offered for the error.
Sources close to the General Staff say the order to launch an airstrike on the 34 Kurdish citizens, residing in the Uludere district of Şırnak, in spite of a warning from the Air Force Command that the group crossing the border comprised smugglers and not PKK militants. Air Force officers had to demand that the order be conveyed in writing. The airstrike was conducted after a written order came from the General Staff, where several high-ranking army officers watched every second of imagery relayed from Herons, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that take images over a certain region from the air. The same sources claim Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel was deliberately misinformed about the operation. The group responsible for the order notified Özel that a terrorist group crossing the border had been stopped with the airstrike.
The first response to the allegations came from an official at the General Staff who asked to be unnamed, who responded saying that there was no written document that could confirm the sources' claims. The same person also recalled that a prosecutor's office had introduced a gag order on stories regarding the Uludere incident, adding that the General Staff had given all the necessary documents to the prosecutors investigating the incident.
There are a number of investigations under way into the Uludere incident. Two inspectors from the Interior Ministry are investigating the military, and a military inspector is investigating the role of the gendarmerie in the region. The Diyarbakır Prosecutor's Office is conducting a separate investigation. Both the prosecutor's office and the two ministry inspectors have seen the four hours of footage acquired from Herons, which sources say comprises key evidence as to what went wrong on the day of the attack.
It has also emerged, according to military sources who spoke to Today's Zaman, that a crisis desk was formed at the General Staff on the night of the airstrike. The generals evaluated the footage and -- based on previously acquired intelligence that the PKK at the time was planning attacks on border outposts -- decided that the border crossers could be terrorists, which is when they contacted the Air Force, which objected to an airstrike, saying those crossing into Turkey were ordinary residents, making a living smuggling in goods from northern Iraq. The generals at the General Staff insisted that the incoming individuals were terrorists. The Air Force officers then demanded a written order, which eventually cost 34 lives.
Real purpose of order
A military source who asked to remain anonymous told Today's Zaman that the real purpose behind the airstrike was to place Chief of General Staff Gen. Özel, who was appointed by the will of the government, and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan in a difficult position. The same officer also notes that the botched airstrike also worked to render Turkey's counterterrorism efforts ineffective. The source claims that over the past two months, the military suffered significant losses in clashes with the PKK, insisting that a second aim behind the airstrike was to undermine Turkey's counterterrorism operations. The decision makers also mislead Gen. Özel, according to our source.
The questions that now beg answers are who were the people at the crisis desk on the night of the airstrike, and why did they ignore the warning that the people in the footage were smugglers? Also, on what information did the decision makers declare the young people going back to their homes terrorists? Who was the written order signed by and was Gen. Özel informed that an airstrike was being planned before the attack? Another question is, who did these people contact at the MİT Undersecretariat who might have provided the information that the PKK was planning attacks around the time of the airstrike?