When the shelling began, screams filled the air under a canopy of vines. The parents grabbed their children and ran.
Turkey has for years carried out military operations against militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in the mountains of northern Iraq. The group has waged a decades-long war for autonomy for Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish minority – but civilian casualties on this scale are said to be rare.
Who are the Kurds and why is Turkey attacking them?
Wednesday’s strike at the Barakh resort town of Zakhu came as thousands of Iraqis took refuge from the summer heat in the mountains of Kurdistan. Many of the dead and injured were from the predominantly Arab federal region of the country, where temperatures reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) this week.
In an interview broadcast by the Kurdish TV channel Rudaw, an eyewitness from the capital, Baghdad, said tendrils of smoke were visible further up the mountain from the window of his tourist bus when he arrived in Barakh.
“We asked our tour guide, but they said it was normal,” he said. About 15 minutes later, four or five strikes landed amid the gathered families, he said. A young boy’s hand has been severed. An old man has lost two daughters. In addition to the eight dead, at least 28 people were injured.
The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Turkey, where millions of Kurds live in the southeastern part of the country bordering Iraq and Syria, has spent decades fighting a low-level war with the PKK, killing tens of thousands dead.
The militants have been operating in the Kurdistan region of Iraq for decades and have always been seen as a political and security threat by the Kurdish parties ruling the region. But in practice, neither has the ability to oust them. Turkey was instead allowed to operate dozens of military bases in Iraq from which to target the group.
In a statement Wednesday, the Kurdistan Region Council of Ministers condemned the strike and urged Iraq’s federal government, based in Baghdad, and the international community to do more to prevent the attacks.
For its part, the United Nations condemned the attack and called for an investigation, but it did not mention Turkey in its statement. The US State Department said it was monitoring the situation.
As night fell, dozens of protesters gathered outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad. Sentences have been scribbled with spray paint in Turkish bureaucratic offices in several cities in southern Iraq. On social media, a trending hashtag referenced a quote from Saddam Hussein that compared Turkey, unfavorably, to one of Iraq’s other powerful neighbours, Iran.
In a statement hours later, Turkey condemned the strikes and suggested that only a “terrorist organization” could be responsible. He called for an investigation.
Turkey “conducts its fight against terrorism in accordance with international law, with the utmost sensitivity to the protection of civilians”, she said.
“We urge Iraqi government officials not to make statements under the influence of the rhetoric and propaganda of the treacherous terrorist organization and to cooperate in bringing to light the true perpetrators of this tragic incident,” he said. he added.
Human rights groups have urged Turkey to do more to protect civilians during its attacks on Kurdish militants. Since the start of the year, the civilian casualty monitoring group Airwars has recorded dozens of potential civilian casualties from alleged Turkish strikes in Iraq using artillery and ordnance dropped.
Ankara has urged Baghdad to uproot the PKK from the Kurdistan region. Iraq, in turn, described the Turkish attacks as a violation of its sovereignty.
“This brutal attack underscores the fact that Turkey has ignored Iraq’s continued demands to refrain from military violations against Iraqi territory and the lives of its people,” Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said in a statement on Wednesday. communicated.
President Barham Salih wrote on Twitter that he “condemned and denounced” the attack.
Dulsher Abdulsattar, an official in the Zakhu area, said the area had been shelled seven times in three months, but never near civilian gatherings.
“People are terrified; they came for sightseeing, but they were bombed instead,” he said, reached by phone from a hospital as medics treated the injured. “Is there PKK in the mountains? Sure. But here they bombed a tourist area.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.