Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Deputy Chairman Hüseyin Çelik held a press conference Thursday evening, saying the incident was the result of an “operational accident” that was caused by a mistake or intelligence failure. He said both a legal and an administrative probe were underway to name those responsible for the deadly error. “If there was a mistake, it will not be covered up in any way and the necessary legal action will be taken.”
A statement from the Şırnak Governor’s Office said 35 people were killed and another was injured in the airstrikes. However, hospital records indicate a death toll of 36.
The Turkish military released a statement Thursday that said the area struck was the Sinat-Haftanin region of northern Iraq, where the primary Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases are located and where there are no civilian inhabitants.
“Administrative and judicial investigations are underway and procedures are being followed with respect to the incident,” the General Staff said.
Recalling that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have been conducting cross-border operations into northern Iraq since 2007, in line with a mandate granted by the Turkish Parliament in 2007 and extended every year since then, the statement said the military had recently received intelligence suggesting that senior PKK leaders had ordered retaliation for recent military operations and that they had sent a large number of terrorists to the Sinat-Haftanin region for this purpose.
“As a result of intelligence received from various sources and technical analyses carried out, we understood that terrorist groups, which also included senior leaders, had gathered in the region and that they were readying to stage attacks on our outposts and bases along the border. The relevant troops were warned,” the statement read. Noting that the military had stepped up aerial surveillance of the region after more intelligence was received about possible attacks on military targets, the General Staff said an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) had detected a group heading towards the Turkish border with northern Iraq at 6:39 p.m. Wednesday. “Considering that the area where the group was spotted was a region frequently used by terrorists and that there was overnight activity towards our borders, we decided the group should be fired upon and the target was hit between 9:37 and 10:24 p.m.,” the statement said.
Observers have noted that the referral to “various sources” as the root of the intelligence information indicates that the intelligence tip on the group crossing the border may have come from outside the TSK, possibly from the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) which, for some time, has been emphasizing dialogue and negotiations for a solution to separatist violence. Sources indicate that the TSK, which has conducted some very successful operations against terrorist targets over the past few months, may have been forced into this tragic error due to an intelligence failure.
Among the speculation is that MİT has many agents inside the PKK, some of whom work as double agents. One allegation is that such individuals may have purposefully passed on incorrect information in an attempt to undermine the success of operations against the PKK.
It is also known that PKK militants often infiltrate smuggler groups to cross the border. In fact, smuggling remains one of the most important sources of income for the PKK. In many instances, residents who are involved in illegal over-the-border trade intersect with the PKK. Earlier, the government had tried to pass new legislation to curtail smuggling in the region, but no palpable steps were taken.
As the TSK also noted in its statement, there are no settlements close to the area that was the target of the airstrike; a location that is in close proximity to a PKK base in northern Iraq. Sources also noted that the information there were PKK commanders among the smugglers was strong intelligence that called for immediate action.
All these points suggest that the intelligence failure may have been purposeful and part of a plan to reactivate the PKK in the region, which has been struggling logistically and physically following successful operations by the military over the past few months. The deaths of locals could significantly undermine the General Staff’s determination.
One point all observers agree on is that there are too many shady details as to how the incident occurred.
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş in an initial statement argued that what took place in Uludere was “an obvious massacre.” He said all of the victims were villagers, including children and high school students. He said the villagers relied on smuggling to make a living and that the officials in the region also knew that. The BDP leader recalled earlier remarks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in reference to embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in which he said a government that kills its own people loses its legitimacy. “I am using these exact words with respect to Erdoğan,” he said. Demirtaş added that the BDP has declared a three-day period of mourning for the victims.
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.
The incident comes amidst recently stepped-up military operations against the terrorist PKK regarded as successful by many security experts. The number of PKK terrorists who have surrendered or been captured has increased over the past few months. Dozens of terrorists who refused to surrender were killed in November and December. Turkish losses were minimal in these encounters, and no civilians were killed.
“There were rumors that the PKK would pass through this region. Images were recorded of a group crossing last night; hence, an operation was carried out,” an unnamed security official was quoted by Reuters as having said. “We could not have known whether these people were PKK members or smugglers,” he added.
Those killed were from the Ortasu village of Uludere, on the Turkish side of the border, on what was a regular smuggling route. All the residents of the 980-strong village are related as members of the Goyan clan. The village has only two sources of income: salaries paid by the state to its village guards, armed by the state to fight the PKK, and smuggling. Almost every house in the village has at least one member who works as a village guard. Since older men are village guards, the smuggling is left to teenagers. Two other nearby villages, Gülyazı and Ortabağ, face the same situation.
Those killed in the airstrike were mostly cousins. They were bringing back, as they did almost every day, various smuggled goods — primarily diesel — from northern Iraq. They used the same routes that had been used by their fathers and grandfathers for decades for the same purpose. There were two mules per smuggler. Their plan was to reach their village by around 8 p.m. They moved in groups of five or six people, their customary practice. When the first group of smugglers neared the border at around 6:30 p.m., they received calls from their village cautioning them to be careful, saying that the TSK had blocked the route. Worried they might be captured, the teenagers waited on the Iraqi side of the border. As the hours passed, the number of smugglers waiting on Iraqi soil, just 3 kilometers from Ortasu, increased. Almost all of them were high school students. As they waited, they heard fighter jets in the sky. F-16s began to rain bombs on the teenagers, drowning out their screams. Some of them tried to take refuge under boulders in the area. The villagers, who had also heard the jet engines, knew what was going on. They started running towards the border to see a horrifying scene: corpses, burnt by bomb shells, all around the open landscape. They brought the dead back on their mules. When day broke, the entire country saw the extent of the horror. Only one of those caught in the airstrike survived.
Images on television showed a line of corpses covered by blankets on a barren hillside with a crowd of people gathered around, some with their heads in their hands and crying. People loaded the corpses onto donkeys, which were led down the hillside to be loaded into vehicles and taken to a hospital in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast of the country.
The names of those killed, revealed early Thursday evening, are Seyit Encü, Özcan Uysal, Mehmet Encü, Nevzat Encü, Hamza Encü, Şervan Encü, Cemal Encü, Osman Encü, Şivan Encü, Bilal Encü, Mehmet Ali Tosun, Nadir Alma, Mahsun Encü, Salih Encü, Hakiki Encü, Yüksel Ürek, Salik Ürek, Serhat Encü, Adem And, Savaş Encü, Selahattin Encü, Bedran Encü, Hüseyin Encü, Aslan Encü, Cevat Encü, Erkan Encü, Selman Encü, Orhan Encü, Fadıl Encü, Vedat Encü, Cihan Encü, Fikret Encü, Hüseyin Encü, Erkan Encü, Zeydin Encü and Çetin Encü.
The PKK, regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the US, launches attacks on Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey from hideouts in the remote Iraqi mountains.
Turkey and Iran have often engaged in skirmishes with terrorists in the region. Turkish leaders vowed revenge in October via 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. *Aziz İstegün, based in Diyarbakır, contributed to this report.