ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s air force attacked suspected Kurdish rebel targets along the border with Iraq, killing at least 20 people, many of them believed to be smugglers mistaken for guerrillas, reports and officials said Thursday.
The Turkish military confirmed the Wednesday night raids, but said its jets struck an area of northern Iraq that is frequently used by the rebels to enter Turkey, after drones detected a group approaching Turkey’s border. It said an inquiry has been launched, but did not say whether casualties had occurred.
Turkey’s Dogan news agency said one attack occurred near the Turkish village of Ortasu in Sirnak province near Iraq, where Kurdish rebels are based, and killed more than 20 Turkish people. The report said the raids were launched after drones and thermal cameras located a “crowded group” near Ortasu.
On Thursday morning, video footage provided by the Dogan agency showed mourners, some crying, as they surrounded dozens of bodies that lay side-by-side and wrapped in blankets in the village.
The military said border troops had been placed on alert following intelligence indicating that Kurdish rebels were preparing attacks in retaliation for a series of recent military assaults on the guerrillas. It said drones had detected a group approaching Turkey, apparently at a mountain pass that the rebels have used to smuggle weapons into Turkey, and that the military conducted strikes in areas where the rebels have bases far away from civilian settlements.
Pro-Kurdish legislator Nazmi Gur said at least 35 people died in Wednesday night’s attacks, most of them teenagers who were carrying diesel fuel from Iraq into Turkey on donkeys or horses. Gur said the diesel trade is often the only livelihood in local villages and that officials would have known that Turkish smugglers would be operating in the area.
Ahmet Deniz, a spokesman for the rebel group, put the number of dead at 28. He said they were among a group of about 50 people who were attacked on their way back to Turkey from Iraq’s self-ruled northern Kurdish region. Most of the survivors were injured, he said.
“Those who were killed yesterday had no links to PKK. They were only smugglers who were on their way back to Turkey from Iraq,” Deniz said, referring to the Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
“We were on our way back when the jets began to bomb us,” the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency quoted one survivor, Servet Encu, as saying. “Five or six took refuge behind some rocks, but the planes bombed those as well. They all died behind the rocks.”
Kurdish rebels have long used northern Iraq as a springboard for hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets in a campaign for autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast.
This year, Turkey’s air force has launched dozens of air raids on suspected rebel bases and other targets in northern Iraq and along the Turkish side of the mountainous border. Turkish authorities said at least 48 suspected rebels were killed in two offensives backed by air power in southeast Turkey last week.
Recently, the United States deployed four Predator drones to Turkey from Iraq following the American troops’ withdrawal from the country to assist Turkey in its fight against the rebels.
Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict since rebels took up arms in 1984.
Associated Press writer Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed.