By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
BEIRUT — Dozens of people were killed in Turkish airstrikes along the country’s border with Iraq, and an official with Turkey’s ruling party acknowledged Thursday that the victims likely were civilians rather than Kurdish guerrillas.
The military said its warplanes late Wednesday hit an area of northern Iraq regularly used by Kurdish militants to infiltrate Turkey after a drone detected people approaching the border, according to local media reports.
Huseyin Celik, vice president of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said preliminary inquires indicated “these people were not terrorists but were engaged in smuggling.”
He said authorities were still identifying the dead, but most appeared to be members of an extended family and were under the age of 30.
“If it turns out to have been a mistake, a blunder, rest assured that this will not be covered up,” Celik told reporters in Ankara.
Television footage showed villagers gathered around a row of bodies wrapped in blankets and laid out on a hillside in the Uludere district in Turkey’s southeastern province of Sirnak. A statement issued by the provincial governor’s office said 35 people were killed and one wounded in the airstrikes.
Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, called the killings a “massacre,” telling the Zaman daily that authorities were aware that villagers survive on smuggling.
Zaman reported that the airstrikes occurred in Turkish territory. The discrepancy could not be immediately resolved.
Rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who are fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey, have long used mountain bases in northern Iraq to stage guerrilla-style attacks on the other side of the border. This year, Turkey’s air force has carried out dozens of strikes on suspected rebel bases and other targets on both sides of the frontier. The decades-long conflict has killed tens of thousands of people.
In a statement Thursday, Turkey’s military said it had received intelligence that Kurdish rebels were preparing to launch attacks on its border outposts. It said a military drone detected a group of people approaching the border in an area where the PKK has located bases far away from civilian settlements.
“Considering that the area where the group was spotted was a region frequently used by terrorists and that there was overnight activity toward our borders, we decided the group should be fired upon and the target was hit,” the statement said.
The military said an investigation has been launched into the incident.