ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s air force attacked suspected Kurdish rebel targets across the border in Iraq, the military said Thursday, but Kurdish officials claimed many of the roughly 35 people killed were teenaged smugglers mistaken for guerrillas.
The Turkish military confirmed the Wednesday night raids, saying its jets struck an area of northern Iraq frequently used by the rebels to enter Turkey after drones detected a group approaching the often unmarked mountainous border. It said an inquiry has been launched, but did not say whether there were casualties.
The governor’s office for the province of Sirnak — which borders Iraq — said 35 people were killed and one other person was injured in the aerial operation.
Pro-Kurdish legislator Nazmi Gur said most of those killed were teenagers who were carrying diesel fuel from Iraq into Turkey on donkeys or horses — often the only livelihood in local villages. He claimed that officials would have known that Turkish smugglers would be operating in the area.
Video footage provided by the Dogan agency Thursday morning showed mourners, some crying, as they surrounded dozens of bodies that lay side-by-side and wrapped in blankets in the Turkish village of Ortasu.
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, the military said.
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.
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.”
Gur’s pro-Kurdish party released a statement condemning “the massacre.” Kurdish activists were planning protests to denounce the raids in Istanbul.
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.
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