Amid mounting controversy over which state authority gave a strike order that led to the killing of 34 civilians on the Turkish-Iraqi border by military jets last year, Interior minister İdris Naim Şahin said on Wednesday that the order was given by top air force commanders who watched and analyzed the drone images in Ankara, dismissing claims in the media that the government had prior information about the attack.
On Dec. 28, 2011, Turkish fighter jets bombed smugglers who were believed to be outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members on the Turkish-Iraqi border near Uludere in Şırnak province, sparking outrage in Turkey. The Turkish military stated that the warplanes had targeted the group based on intelligence that suggested a group of armed terrorists would be heading towards the Turkish border to stage attacks on the military. Claims in the media have suggested that the government had prior information about the attack.
“The strike order was not given by the president, the prime minister or the chief of General Staff. As for me, I am not in a position to manage incidents across 81 provinces moment by moment. It is wrong to even question this. … Those who manage the incident moment by moment are military and security officials. The [strike] order was initiated by the commanders who analyzed the [drone] images in Ankara,” said Şahin.
His statements, which came during a program on NTV, followed remarks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who on Monday refuted claims that his government had prior information about military plans to carry out an air strike on the civilians near Uludere. “We had information about the operation just after it was carried out, but we did not have any information about it beforehand,” Erdoğan said.
Furthermore, the interior minister criticized the local people of Uludere, saying the 34 civilians who were killed in the air strike were smuggling goods from bordering Iraq when they were attacked.
“It is not possible to get something right from something wrong. If they had been captured alive, they would be brought to trial over charges of smuggling, but this incident [air strike] overshadowed the smuggling issue,” he said.
Şahin also claimed that locals in Uludere and surrounding regions are used by the PKK and Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that allegedly encompasses the PKK, which he said make financial gains through smuggling activities in the region.
“That region is under control of the PKK. … Those youths are extras. The film has its main actors -- the [Peace and Democracy Party] BDP is a part of this. It is the PKK that provides smuggled goods to those people. It is the KCK that makes financial gain over smuggling activities. So, looking at the bigger picture, we see nothing to apologize for,” said the minister.
The government has so far turned a deaf ear to calls for an official apology for the killing of civilians in the Uludere incident. Earlier this year, it paid TL 123,000 in compensation to each family for the attack and said the compensation could be interpreted as a form of apology from the state.
“We don’t approach the incident with a guilty conscience. Our youths should not have been there. It is the BDP that gives smuggling orders to them. The BDP is part of this incident,” he said.
Debates about the Uludere incident have intensified after a US newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, claimed last Wednesday that the civilian death toll set off alarms at the Pentagon because “it was a US Predator drone that spotted the men and pack animals.”
Turkish military and government officials dismissed the WSJ claims that the intelligence was provided by US drones but from national sources.
A statement released by the Turkish General Staff last Thursday denied the WSJ report and said the first intelligence related to the Uludere incident was taken by Turkish Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The statement added that the detailed information was sent to relevant bodies investigating the incident.
The Turkish Government and Parliament have been investigating the incident separately, trying to find out how it happened and who is responsible for the deaths of the villagers in Uludere, while public prosecutors have been conducting their own legal probes into the matter. Only one colonel, who previously served as the deputy commander of a military regiment in the Uludere district, was removed from his post by the Interior Ministry over claims of negligence. This has been the only move by the government so far.
A report by the General Staff, submitted to the parliamentary Human Rights Commission in April, failed to shed light on the questions or answering why there was a rushed decision to carry out the strike. The report says the air strike took place in accordance with regulations regarding the cross-border operations of the military, but it does not explain why the decision to launch the air strike was made hastily.
Prime Minister Erdoğan also refuted the WSJ claims last Friday and said that the story was fabricated to put the White House in a difficult position as part of domestic politics ahead of upcoming US presidential elections.
Just after the air strike, there were other claims in the Turkish media suggesting that National Intelligence Organization (MİT) agents inside the PKK purposefully provided intelligence to the General Staff that a band of terrorists would be crossing the border from northern Iraq into Turkey near Uludere nine days before the air strike was carried out.
MİT denied these allegations in January. MİT Undersecretary Hakan Fidan said at the time: “All these statements are lies and bear no relation to the truth.” He claimed MİT was not involved in the intelligence efforts that led to the tragic incident.
In remarks that appeared in the media on Wednesday, ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) Diyarbakır deputy Galip Ensarioğlu said responsibility of the Uludere attack lies with the government first.
“Not just five months but even if five centuries pass [since the Uludere incident], accountability will still be asked for it,” he said.
AK Party Deputy Chairman and party spokesperson Hüseyin Çelik, who on Wednesday talked about the ongoing debates regarding the Uludere incident, said his government will never allow the incident to be covered up, adding that the five months that have passed since the incident is not sufficient time to reveal the truth.
Taraf raises critical questions on Uludere tragedy
Taraf daily, which has been pressing public authorities to account for the Uludere attack, on Wednesday directed critical questions to the government from its front-page, telling it that the head of the executive branch in a democracy cannot leave these questions unanswered following a massacre in which 34 people were killed.
Erdoğan said his government did not have prior information about the Uludere operation. Who did have information about it? Who gave the strike order?
What action has Erdoğan, who admitted that a mistake was made in the Uludere incident, taken over the past five months about those responsible for this mistake? What did he change in the system that led to this mistake?
Wasn’t it trying to justify the attack when Erdoğan said: “It is impossible for the TSK to detect whether that group of people was terrorists or civilians.”
Did Erdoğan not feel any guilt when saying that the government took the necessary steps following the attack and paid compensation to the victims’ families. When did he apologize to the victims’ mothers, who said: “We want an explanation not compensation.”