REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Dozens of people have been killed in Turkish airstrikes along the Iraq-Turkey border, and Turkey's ruling party acknowledged Thursday that the military probably mistakenly targeted civilians rather than guerrilla fighters in a mostly ethnic Kurdish area.
The Turkish military said its warplanes hit an area of northern Iraq regularly used by Kurdish militants to infiltrate Turkey after a drone detected people approaching the border on Wednesday night, according to local media reports.
Huseyin Celik, an official with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, said preliminary inquires indicated "these people were not terrorists but were engaged in smuggling."
He said authorities were still identifying the dead, but most appeared to be members of an extended family and were under the age of 30.
"If it turns out to have been a mistake, a blunder, rest assured that this will not be covered up," Celik told reporters in Ankara.
Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, called the killings a “massacre,” telling the Zaman daily that authorities were aware that villagers survive on smuggling. Zaman also reported that the airstrikes took place inside Turkey, rather than in Iraq.
Rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who are fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey, have long used mountain bases in northern Iraq to stage guerrilla-style attacks on the other side of the border. This year, Turkey's air force has carried out dozens of strikes on suspected rebel bases and other targets on both sides of the border. The decades-long conflict has killed tens of thousands of people.
In a statement Thursday, Turkey’s military said it had received intelligence that Kurdish rebels were preparing to launch attacks on its border outposts. It said a military drone detected a group of people approaching the border in an area where the PKK has located bases far away from civilian settlements.
“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,” the statement said.
The military said an investigation has been launched into the incident.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: A crowd gathers to look at bodies lying on the ground after Turkey's air force attacked suspected Kurdish rebel targets across the border in Iraq, killing dozens of people. Credit: Associated Press