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Warplanes looking for rebels kill 35 Turkish civilians

- Associated Press - Thursday, December 29, 2011

ANKARA, TURKEY Turkish warplanes aiming for suspected Kurdish rebels hiding in Iraq instead killed 35 civilians - most believed to be cigarette smugglers, a senior official said Thursday.

It was one of the largest one-day civilian death tolls incurred during Turkey's 27-year drive against militant Kurds seeking autonomy in the country's southeast.

It also is the latest instance of violence to undermine the Turkish government's efforts to grant cultural and other rights to aggrieved Kurds.

Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party, said that authorities were trying to identify the dead, but that most were youngsters from an extended family in the mostly Kurdish-populated area that borders Iraq.

"According to the initial information, these people were not terrorists but were engaged in smuggling," Mr. Celik said.

All of the victims were younger than 30 and some were the sons of village guards who have aided Turkish troops in their fight against rebels, he said.

Mr. Celik suggested Turkey was ready to compensate the victims.

"If there was a mistake, if there was a fault, this will not be covered up, and whatever is necessary will be done," he said.

Earlier, the Turkish military confirmed the Wednesday night raids, saying its jets struck an area of northern Iraq frequently used by rebels to enter Turkey after drones detected a group approaching the often unmarked mountainous border.

Border troops had been placed on alert following intelligence indicating that Kurdish rebels were preparing attacks in retaliation recent military assaults on the guerrillas, the military said.

It said drones had detected a group approaching Turkey, apparently at a mountain pass that the rebels have used to smuggle weapons into Turkey, and that the military conducted strikes in areas where the rebels have bases far away from civilian settlements.

Pro-Kurdish lawmaker Nazmi Gur said most of those killed were teenagers who were carrying diesel fuel from Iraq into Turkey on donkeys or horses - often the only livelihood in local villages.

He claimed that officials would have known that Turkish smugglers would be operating in the area.

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