ANKARA - Turkey's government is struggling to contain the fall-out from a blunder in which the military killed 35 young Kurdish smugglers in an air strike they thought was directed at Kurdish separatist militants.
KURDISH PEOPLE MOURN for victims of a Turkish air raid at the cemetery of Gulyazi Village, Sirnak province, near the Iraqi border on Dec. 30. (Bulent Kilic / AFP via Getty Images)
The conservative, Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has followed previous administrations in cracking down on the separatist rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But it is no closer to finding a solution to the complaints of the country's substantial Kurdish minority.
Turkey's military said they directed Dec. 28's air strike near the Iraqi border against what they thought was a group of around 40 fighters from the PKK, with whom they have been involved in a bitter, decades-long conflict.
When the dust cleared, however, the bodies were of local villagers - most of them between the ages of 16 and 20 - who had been smuggling cigarettes and fuel across the border.
Grief-stricken, enraged local villagers had denounced the attack within hours; local television pictures showed them using mules to carry the dead down off the snow-covered mountains in Uludere district.
But while the AKP conceded Dec. 29 that there could have been a blunder, it took until Dec. 30 for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to unequivocally acknowledge the mistake.
Expressing regret for the killing of 35 Kurds, he offered his condolences to the victims for what he described as an "unfortunate and distressing" incident.
At the same time, however, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted that Turkey was engaged an anti-terrorist operation against the PKK while respecting the rule of law. The blunder Dec. 28 had been an exception, he said.
Media commentators and opposition politicians were scathing of the AKP's handling of the crisis.
"The state bombed its own people," was the headline in the liberal daily Taraf.
Fikret Bila, a columnist with Milliyet newspaper, remarked on CNN-Turk television: "The government is always readying to take credit, notably for economic successes.
"One wonders why no one has apologized on behalf of the government."
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), called for the government to act - and for those responsible to resign.
The outrage within the Kurdish community itself expressed itself in protests in several cities Dec. 29 and 30, with some protesters clashing with the police.
Down near the border with Iraq, some bereaved villagers dismissed talk of an error, accusing the army of having deliberately targeted the civilians. The PKK itself made the same case.
"This massacre was no accident ... It was organized and planned," Bahoz Erdal of the PKK's armed wing said in a statement.
The PKK took up arms in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed about 45,000 lives. But clashes between the rebels and the army have escalated in recent months, with Turkey raiding PKK bases inside northern Iraq in October in response to an attack that killed 24 soldiers in the border town of Cukurca.
"The government cannot, must not have this affair covered up," Rusen Cakir,a specialist on the Kurdish issue, wrote in the Vatan newspaper. "To do so would only spur the PKK on to step up its attacks."
After he came to power in 2002, Erdogan pushed through important reforms granting greater rights to the Kurds, who make up 15 million of the nation's 73 million population. But after the heavy losses suffered by Turkey's army in October, he bowed to public pressure and hardened his line against the Kurdish rebels.
Resolving the Kurdish conflict remains one of the toughest challenges facing Turkey, the world's 17th-largest economy and a major regional player. The air strike Dec. 28 only made that task harder.