Locals gather in front of a truck carrying the bodies of people who were killed in a warplane attack in the Ortasu village of Uludere, in Turkey’s Sirnak province on Dec. 29.
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey – Turkish warplanes killed at least 35 people in an airstrike in southeastern Turkey near the Iraqi border overnight, apparently mistaking smugglers for Kurdish militants, a pro-Kurdish party and local officials said on Thursday.
Turkish warplanes strike militant targets regularly in the region in their battle against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas, and have stepped up raids after a PKK attack in August.
“We have 30 corpses, all of them are burned. The state knew that these people were smuggling in the region. This kind of incident is unacceptable. They were hit from the air,” said Fehmi Yaman, mayor of Uludere in Sirnak province.Turkey’s Dogan news agency said the attacks occurred near the Turkish village of Ortasu in Sirnak near Iraq, a country where Kurdish rebels are based, and killed more than 20 people. The report said the raids were launched after drones and thermal cameras located a “crowded group” near Ortasu.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said in a statement 35 people had been killed, adding that party leaders were heading for the area.
The Turkish military declined to confirm or deny whether it had carried out the Wednesday night raid on both sides of the border.
Local villagers said the smugglers were carrying drums of diesel on mules and tractors, according to the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News. The diesel drums exploded and burned them to death.
Local BDP official Yunus Urek told CNN that one person survived with injuries.
Smuggling is an important source of income for locals in provinces along the Iraqi border, with many villagers involved in bringing fuel, cigarettes and other goods from Iraqi villages on the other side of the border.
PKK militants also cross the border in these areas.
“There were rumors that the PKK would cross through this region. Images were recorded of a crowd crossing last night, hence an operation was carried out,” a Turkish security official said.
“We could not have known whether these people were (PKK) group members or smugglers,” he said.
17 more people missing
Television images showed a line of corpses covered by blankets on a barren hillside, with a crowd of people gathered around, some with their head in their hands and crying.
People loaded the corpses onto donkeys which were led down the hillside to be loaded into vehicles to be taken to hospital in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.
Security sources said those killed were carrying canisters of diesel on mules and their bodies were found on the Iraqi side of the border.
They said those killed were from Uludere on the Turkish side of the border on what was a regular smuggling route.
The Firat news agency, which has close ties to the PKK, said that 17 people were still believed to be missing. It said those killed were aged around 17-20.
The PKK, regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States, launches attacks on Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey from hideouts inside the remote Iraqi mountains.
Turkey and Iran have often skirmished with rebels in the region and Turkish leaders vowed revenge in October with air and ground strikes after the PKK killed 24 Turkish soldiers in raids on military outposts in southeastern Turkey.
It was one of the deadliest attacks since the PKK took up arms in 1984 in a conflict in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.