People carry the coffins of victims as thousands of mourners gathered in Gulyazi village at the border with Iraq, southeast Turkey, Friday, Dec. 30, 2011 for the funerals of 35 Kurdish civilians who were killed in a botched raid by Turkish military jets that mistook the group for Kurdish rebels based in Iraq. Turkish television footage showed people, many weeping and lamenting the dead, as they gathered after the air strikes Wednesday that killed a group of smugglers along the border, one of the deadliest episodes in the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels who took up arms in 1984.(AP Photo)
Updated: December 30, 2011 5:46PM
ISTANBUL — Turkish Kurds vented their rage Friday over a botched military airstrike aimed at Kurdish rebels that instead killed 35 civilians, with thousands lamenting the dead at funerals and scores clashing with police at demonstrations.
The government promised a full inquiry into Wednesday’s air strikes, which struck a group of smugglers and resulted in one of the highest single-day civilian death tolls in the long-standing conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels, who took up arms in 1984.
Even before the latest violence, a government campaign to reconcile with Kurds, who make up roughly 20 percent of Turkey’s 74 million people, by granting them more rights has stalled amid a surge in fighting this year.
Footage from the Dogan news agency showed people digging graves on a hill near the southeast village of Gulyazi, home of some of the slain smugglers, and the funeral rites quickly took on a political tone.
Thousands walked along a mountain path with coffins draped in red, yellow and green, the colors associated with Kurdish identity and the rebel group PKK, whose Kurdish acronym stands for Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Victims’ families demanded revenge and called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “murderer,” according to Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency.
For a second day, stone-throwing demonstrators clashed with police who responded with tear gas and water cannons in several cities in the mostly Kurdish southeast. Protesters lobbed rocks at a national ruling party office in Diyarbakir, the region’s biggest city, and Firat said 30 people were arrested there.
One person was injured and six arrested in southeastern Van city, the state-run Anadolu news agency said. Meanwhile, several hundred people protested peacefully in Istanbul, while some 500 Iraqi Kurds denounced the airstrikes in a rally in the city of Irbil in the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq.
A somber Erdogan described the attack near the border village of Ortasu in Sirnak province as “unfortunate” and “saddening,” noting half the dead were under age 20. He said two F-16s bombed the area after images provided by drones showed a 40-person group approaching the border from the Iraqi side.
“It was revealed later that they were part of a group smuggling cigarettes, diesel fuel and such,” he said.
Usually, according to Erdogan, such smuggling is done by groups of just three to five people. He said at least two recent deadly attacks on military outposts near the Iraq-Turkey border were carried out by guerrillas who smuggled guns across the border on mules.
Four hours of official video footage of the raid will be examined, he said.
In an email statement, the PKK called the strikes a “massacre,” and referred to “technical and intelligence support” provided by the United States, which recently deployed four Predator drones to Turkey from Iraq to aid Ankara in its fight against the rebels.
The military, meanwhile, issued a message of condolence carried on Anadolu news agency. There was no apology, but such a public outreach is highly unusual for the Turkish armed forces, which are traditionally tightlipped about operations.
“We wish God’s mercy and grace to those who lost their lives in the cross-border incident of Dec. 28, 2011, and extend our condolences to their family and friends,” the statement said. Last week, the military reported the deaths of 48 suspected rebels in offensives backed by air power.
While many Kurds have assimilated and are not politically active, a significant number feel marginalized and want autonomy in Kurdish-dominated southeast Turkey. The rebels have long used northern Iraq as a springboard for hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets.
The conflict has been a drag on Turkey’s efforts to burnish its image as a regional model and advocate for democratic change in neighboring countries such as Syria, where thousands have died since an uprising began in March.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a chief architect of Turkey’s rising profile, said the airstrikes would be thoroughly investigated and should not be exploited for political gain. Another top official, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, said the inquiry would not be a whitewash.
“If there is any negligence, any fault or any intention, those who are responsible will be found and will endure the consequences,” Arinc said.
The Turkish government has taken some conciliatory steps toward the Kurds, allowing Kurdish-language institutes and private Kurdish courses as well as Kurdish television broadcasts. But Kurdish activists say far more needs to be done to heal scars dating from a time when the Kurdish language was banned, and cite police roundups of Kurdish politicians, journalists and others suspected of rebel links as a sign of intolerance for the minority.