Iraq cancelled a ministerial visit and summoned Turkey’s ambassador as it blamed Ankara for a drone strike that killed two high-ranking Iraqi officers on Tuesday. As the number of civilians killed in the Turkish military campaign increases Iraq grows increasingly weary.
Iraqi officials labelled the strike a “blatant Turkish drone attack” in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where Ankara has for weeks been raiding militant positions.
Two officials killed in Turkish airstrike
Two border guard battalion commanders and the driver of their vehicle were killed, the army said in a statement, marking the first Iraqi troop deaths since Turkey launched the cross-border operation in mid-June against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels.
Iraq’s foreign ministry — which had already summoned the Turkish envoy twice over the military action on its soil — said the ambassador would this time be given “a letter of protest with strong words” rejecting such aggression.
The ministry also confirmed the Turkish defence minister would no longer be welcomed on Thursday.
Ihsan Chalabi, the mayor of nearby Sidakan in the north of Arbil province, told AFP that the drone strike in the Pradost region targeted “Iraqi border guard commanders while they were in meetings with PKK fighters”.
Witnesses had reported clashes earlier in the day between PKK and Iraqi forces, and local sources said the drone strike targeted an emergency meeting called to try to calm the tension.
The Iraqi presidency earlier denounced “a dangerous violation of Iraqi sovereignty” and called on Ankara to “stop all its military operations” in the region.
Death toll from Turkish campaign rises
At least five civilians have been killed since the start of the Turkish campaign.
Ankara has announced the death of two of its soldiers, and the PKK and its allies have reported the deaths of 10 fighters and supporters.
The PKK, which is blacklisted as a terrorist group by Ankara and its Western allies, has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
It has long used the rugged terrain of northern Iraq as a rear base to wage attacks on Turkey, which in turn had set up military positions inside Iraqi territory to fight them.
The Kurdish authorities, dominated by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), see the PKK as rivals but have never been able to uproot them from their northern Iraqi bases.
Iraq sees Turkey’s military presence in the Kurdish region as a violation of its sovereignty but does not want to alienate Turkey, a major trading partner and regional heavyweight.
Turkey acknowledges civilian deaths in campaign
The attack, which Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish party called a “crime against humanity,” sparked clashes between hundreds of stone-throwing protesters and police in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s restive, mainly-Kurdish southeast.
The incident threatens to spoil efforts to forge Turkish-Kurdish consensus for a planned new constitution expected to address the issue of rights for the Kurdish minority partly.
The Turkish military had said its warplanes launched airstrikes overnight after drones spotted suspected rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The army had denied there were civilians in the area.
Ruling Party spokesperson: mistakes will not be covered up
But ruling AK Party spokesman Huseyin Celik said initial reports based on local government officials had found the victims were not militants and that most of the dead were cigarette smugglers under the age of 30. This significantly the number of civilians killed in Turkish military campaign.
NEW — At least 35 civilians dead, 30 others wounded in Syria’s Afrin in an attack conducted with an oil tanker, Turkey says
“It has been determined from initial reports that these people were smugglers, not terrorists,” Celik told a live news conference, calling the incident “saddening.”
“If mistakes were made, if there were flaws and if there were shortcomings in the incident that took place, by no means will these be covered up.”
In addition to demonstrations in Diyarbakir, there were smaller protests in Turkey’s largest city Istanbul, where police fired tear gas and water cannon at pro-Kurdish demonstrators.
“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.
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.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk