Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Turkish attacks kill civilians in Kandil Mountains

‘The Turkish government has displayed a flagrant disregard for the lives of local residents’ - Lama Fakih

Evidence collected by Amnesty International during a fact-finding to Kurdistan Region of Iraq indicates that multiple Turkish government airstrikes there killed eight residents and injured at least eight others - including a child - in a flagrantly unlawful attack on the village of Zergele, in the Kandil Mountains.

The airstrikes - on 1 August - were part of a military campaign launched by Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but according to information gathered by Amnesty, these residents were not affiliated with the PKK. Amnesty is calling on the Turkish government to launch an independent, impartial and effective investigation into the airstrikes and to publicly release the findings of their investigation.

Whether or not the clashes between the PKK and the Turkish government amount to a non-international armed conflict, under both the laws of war and international human rights law the killing of residents not affiliated with the PKK is unlawful. The Turkish authorities had initially claimed the strikes were targeting PKK members at a “terrorist camp”.  They have since announced plans to conduct a joint investigation into the strikes with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq.

Evidence gathered during a visit by Amnesty to the village of Zergele three days after the airstrikes suggests all those killed and injured in the attack were not affiliated with the PKK. Amnesty spoke to several eyewitnesses, including two doctors who rescued the wounded and three residents (see below) who all said that none of the dead or injured were PKK fighters and that there were no PKK fighters in the area. Those killed included a local mayor and two municipality workers. All witnesses said that the victims wore civilian clothes and that they saw no weapons on the scene. Amnesty reviewed ten photographs and one video from the scene that were consistent with these witness statements.

Meanwhile, a PKK media spokesperson told Amnesty that in order to ensure civilian protection PKK fighters did not mix with the residents and that as a general practice they maintained positions at least five kilometres away from them. On 4 August Amnesty observed a few PKK fighters in the village. However, local residents and the PKK spokesman said they had arrived in the area after the strike to maintain security.

Amnesty International Senior Crisis Advisor Lama Fakih, who visited the area, said:

“The Turkish government has displayed a flagrant disregard for the lives of local residents and failed to take necessary precautions to minimise harm to them, or to discriminate between them and PKK fighters.

“These attacks should be investigated, and Turkish authorities should ensure accountability and redress in the event of wrongdoing.”

Doctors who witnessed aftermath

Dr Medya, a doctor and member of the PKK, who runs a health clinic for residents in a nearby village, described what she saw when she arrived on the scene to Amnesty:

“I saw a lot of people crying about their relatives. One woman fell down … she had hypertension. I saw someone with a wound in the head. I saw a person… [his organs had spilled] outside, [he was] wounded, and in shock position … He [Najeeb Aziz] died. He had lost too much blood. Another one was completely burnt. Some people … were shocked and crying … several houses completely destroyed.”

Dr Medya and Dr Derbass Salih Mohamed Ameen, an assistant doctor in the Zergele Health Center, had both travelled to the strike site to rescue the wounded in the early morning hours of 1 August.

Witnesses also said many relatives and members of the emergency services who came to assist the wounded in the first airstrike were killed and injured in subsequent attacks.   Among them was Salih Mohamed Ameen, the mayor of Bokriskan, a nearby village, who was killed along with his sister, Heybet Mohamed Ameen, after he came to aid the wounded.

Residents also said some of those killed and injured included KRG Peshmerga fighters. These fighters are not involved in the clashes between the PKK and the Turkish government but rather are fighting against the Islamic State armed group in other parts of the country and would be considered civilians under international humanitarian law in the context of a Turkey-PKK conflict.  

Amnesty also found no checkpoints, police stations, or fixed military positions in the village of Zergele, confirming accounts from residents who said no PKK fighters were positioned or residing in the villages. The nearest fixed checkpoints were approximately 25 kilometres and three-to-five kilometres by land respectively, on either side of the village.

Residents killed and injured in events of 1 August

Residents told Amnesty that the airstrikes on Zergele took place between 3-5am in the early morning hours of 1 August, killing eight people and wounding at least eight others. Witness accounts about the number of bombings that took place varied but they recalled up to 11 distinct explosions in the area that morning.

Residents, members of the emergency services and a local journalist told Amnesty that the deceased were: Ayesha Ahmed Mustafa (married name Khedir), Karoh Mohamed Ameen (Peshmerga), Salih Mohamed Ameen (local mayor), Heybet Mohamed Ameen, Najeeb Aziz, Sama Khabat (municipality worker), Endomen Sharawonch (municipality worker), and Abdulkader Bakr (Peshmerga). They said that the injured included: Mohamed Ameen (Peshmerga) and his sister-in-law Sinur, Gerbet Ahmed, her sister Shukariya Ahmed, their mother Khadija, and their niece Chilan Rasheed, a child. Amnesty received the names of two other individuals who were wounded but did not speak to them or their relatives and so is withholding their names.

Dr Derbass told Amnesty that Ayesha Ahmed Mustafa (married name Khedir), an elderly woman, was killed in the first strike which hit her home. He said that he was at home in Goljar, eight kilometres away from Zergele, when the first strike took place but that he came to the strike site shortly after 5:15am to evacuate the wounded.

According to Dr Derbass and two other residents who were on the scene, Karoh Mohamed Ameen, in his early thirties, Ayesha’s grandson, a Peshmerga fighter, and his father Mohamed Ameen, also a Peshmerga fighter, went to the strike site to assist the wounded. Karoh was killed and his father seriously injured. Mohamed’s sister-in-law, Sinur, was injured while trying to flee, a resident said. Her home was also damaged. Her husband, a Peshmerga fighter, was not at home at the time of the attack.

Dr Medya and Dr Derbass also separately told Amnesty that four others living in a second home were injured and evacuated. Dr Derbass confirmed the four injured women were: Gerbet Ahmed, her sister Shukariya Ahmed, their mother Khadija, and Chilan Rasheed, their niece. According to D. Derbass, one of the women worked in his clinic, another was training to work in the clinic, and the other two were students.

Amnesty spoke to Shukariya and another relative who went to the strike site to rescue her and other family members from the nearby village of Bokriskan. They told Amnesty that the four women were injured as they attempted to flee; Shukariya lost her left arm as a result of her injury, Khadija sustained an injury to the head, Gherbet lost an eye and had a shrapnel injury in the chest, and Chilan sustained a shrapnel injury to the chest.

Dr Derbass told Amnesty that both Salih Mohamed Ameen and his sister, Heybet Mohamed Ameen were also killed in the strikes. Both Dr Derbass and Dr Medya confirmed that Salih, the mayor of Bokriskan, was killed when he came to aid the wounded. Dr Medya said that she evacuated three people from the strike site, including Najeeb Aziz, a shop owner living in Zergele and working in Anzah, approximately 50-55 years old, who died from his injuries, and two other men. Sama Khabat, in her mid-twenties and Endomen Sharawonch, both municipality employees, were also killed when they went to the strike site to aid the wounded according to Dr Derbass and a local journalist. Witnesses confirmed that municipality workers wear a blue uniform and do not carry arms. Meanwhile, Abdulkader Bakr from Bokriskan, a Peshmerga fighter was also killed in his home according to Dr Derbass.

Amnesty observed that approximately ten homes were impacted in the airstrikes. Several of these homes were occupied by Peshmerga fighters and their family members. Others belonged to residents who worked in the fields.

PKK-Turkish government conflict

Members of the PKK, an armed group active in Turkey, have long maintained bases in the Kandil Mountains, a mountain range in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq bordering Iran and extending into southern Turkey. There are 61 villages in the mountain range under PKK control that are inhabited by civilians who live in areas distinct from the PKK fighters, according to Mohamed Hassan, the co-chair of the Kandil Mountains municipality. He told Amnesty that the overall population, according to a 2013 census, is about 8,000 residents.

The Turkish government airstrikes against the PKK in the Kandil Mountains began on 24 July, after an attack in Turkey blamed on the PKK. These attacks and attacks by the PKK on Turkish military and police in Turkey represent the most serious breakdown in a fragile March 2013 peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government.

The airstrikes came after long-running tensions escalated on 20 July when a suicide attack blamed on the Islamic State killed 32 people and injured more than 80 in the town of Suruç in the Sanlýurfa province in Turkey. Two days later, two police officers were killed in a separate attack in the province, blamed on the PKK. Following the airstrikes in Kandil, the PKK has launched a number of attacks against the military and police within Turkey. 

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