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Asia-pacific

Erdogan regrets Kurdish civilian airstrike deaths

Video by Jasper MORTIMER

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-12-30

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced regret Friday after the country’s military acknowledged that its deadly air strike on Kurdish civilians on the Iraqi border had been an operational mistake.

AFP - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed regret Friday for the killing of 35 Kurdish civilians in an air strike as mourners vented their fury and rebels called for an uprising.

As locals buried their dead, Erdogan admitted that the victims of Wednesday night's attack near the Iraqi border were smugglers and not separatist rebels as the army had originally claimed.

The military also offered its condolences on Friday in a rare gesture that appeared to acknowledge its error, but neither it nor Erdogan were able to assuage the sense of grief among locals.

Speaking to journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan voiced his regret for what he called an "unfortunate and distressing" incident.

"Images transmitted by drones showed a group of 40 people in the area, it was impossible to say who they were," he said. "Afterwards it was determined they were smugglers transporting cigarettes and fuel on mules."

In his first reaction to the strike by Turkish air force F-16s, Erdogan said that "no state deliberately bombs its own people."

He said that separatist rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had used the same route and methods to bring weapons into Turkey to mount attacks, and called for critics to await the result of an official inquiry.

The acknowledgement that the strike had been an error was given short shrift by the PKK itself, a group regarded as a terrorist organisation both by the Ankara government and the West.

"This massacre was no accident ... It was organised and planned," Bahoz Erdal from the PKK's armed wing said in a statement.

"We urge the people of Kurdistan... to react after this massacre and seek a settling of accounts through uprisings," Erdal added.

The PKK uses the term "uprising" for sweeping civil disobedience as well as clashes with the police.

In the village of Gulyazi, home to many of the victims, locals were also unmoved by the expressions of condolences as the funerals took place.

"This was no mistake," said one young woman, who lost her cousin in the bombing. "They intentionally killed people, who were trying to earn a crust," she sobbed as she walked behind the coffin.

The bodies were transferred from a mosque in the nearby town of Uludere after early morning prayers, and driven to Gulyazi in a long convoy of ambulances and cars. Thousands of people attended the funerals.

"I want to tell the chief of the general staff that my son is a martyr. He was just 13, and he did not have any kind of weapon," cried the father of 13-year-old Vedat Encu, as his son's body was interred.

There were similar outpourings of grief and anger in Uludere.

"Damn you, Erdogan ... One day you too will know our pain," shouted one group of protesters who had gathered in the town centre.

Turkey's military command said it carried out the air strike after a spy drone spotted a group moving toward its sensitive southeastern border under cover of darkness late Wednesday, in an area known to be used by militants.

The main pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said the planes had bombed villagers from Kurdish majority southeastern Turkey who were smuggling sugar and fuel across the border on mules and donkeys.

While branding the bombing "a massacre of civilians", BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas called on the Kurdish population to respond "by democratic means."

Several hundred people demonstrated Friday in Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, burning the Turkish flag. Hundreds also protested in the city of Sulaimaniyah.

The bombing had already sparked protests in Turkey on Thursday, with a demonstration in Istanbul's Taksim Square called by the BDP drawing 2,000 people.

Afterwards, several hundred youths shouting pro-PKK slogans threw stones at riot police, who responded with water cannon and tear gas.

Police also clashed with protesters in Diyarbakir and Sirnak, two mainly Kurdish towns in the southeast, firing tear gas and water cannon in response to demonstrators who threw stones and petrol bombs, local security officials said.

Clashes between Kurdish rebels and the army have escalated in recent months.

The Turkish military launched an operation on militant bases inside northern Iraq in October after a PKK attack killed 24 soldiers in the border town of Cukurca, the army's biggest loss since 1993.

Date created : 2011-12-30

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