Turkey Pulse

Kurds claim Turkish airstrike targeted refugee camp in Iraq

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Article Summary
Fingers are pointed at Turkey as the dust clears from an explosion that killed five people in an Iraq refugee camp for displaced Kurds.

A mysterious explosion near a refugee camp harboring thousands of displaced Turkish Kurds has killed five members of a Kurdish militia and injured three others amid claims that Turkey was responsible for the alleged attack.

The administrative council for the Makhmour camp, southwest of Erbil, claimed late Wednesday's blast was caused by an airstrike carried out by Turkey. The council, which is believed to have close ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), said, “It is significant that a camp under the protection of the United Nations, located in the middle of Iraqi territory was attacked. The Federal Iraqi State, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the UN will be clearly implicated until they issue convincing explanations on the matter.” But the statement failed to specify by what means Turkey had conducted the alleged aerial attack.

Kurdistan 24, an Iraqi Kurdish media outlet, claimed the camp had been struck by a rocket but also did not explain how it may have been launched. Earlier reports suggested the explosion was caused by a car bomb.

Turkey and Iraq have not responded to any of the accusations so far. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which provides assistance to the camp, has not commented either.

Leyla Arzu Ilhan, a former co-chair of the Makhmour Council, backed the claims of an airstrike. She told Al-Monitor, “Residents saw a flash in the sky then heard a loud explosion, so this points to an aerially launched device.” Ilhan said a structure housing local self-defense forces that were established after Islamic State militants attacked Makhmour as they swept across Iraq in the summer of 2014 had been targeted.

“Much of the building collapsed and we have been clearing debris to rescue two of our friends who were stuck under the rubble,” Ilhan said. “Now that we have buried our dead we will undertake a further exhaustive search of the debris for evidence.”

Ilhan acknowledged that an initial search around the site of the blast had yielded no material evidence that could help determine its source. She agreed that IS may have been responsible.

IS militants have used armed drones to attack Iraqi forces and the Kurds, be they in Iraq, Syria or Turkey, are among their archfoes. But Ilhan insisted that Turkey was the more likely culprit. She speculated that the alleged Turkish attack was meant to pressure the PKK into freeing two Turkish intelligence operatives who were netted in a sensational sting operation in September as they met with their moles near the town of Dukhan in Iraqi Kurdistan. “We can’t be sure but it’s a distinct possibility,” she told Al-Monitor. The men remain in PKK captivity despite protracted efforts on the part of MIT chief Hakan Fidan to secure their release.

A Kurdish-Turkish politician living in self-imposed exile in Europe took a different view. He argued that the attack was part of a broader pattern of emerging cooperation between Turkey, Iraq and Iran against the Kurds. The politician, who spoke on condition of strict anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “Ever since the referendum [on Kurdish independence] we have seen signs of these three countries reverting to their old ways of ganging up against the Kurds.” The politician predicted that “it is only a matter of time before Turkey and Syria reconcile and do the same," pointing to last month’s wave of Turkish airstrikes against Asos Mountain on the Iraq-Iran border.

Turkey periodically rains bombs on PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains but the attack against Asos was a first. The pro-PKK Firat news agency claimed the strikes occurred after Iranian drones scouted the area and then passed on target coordinates to Turkey.

Makhmour has long been a Turkish bugbear because of PKK entrenchment there and every so often rumors surface of an imminent Turkish attack against the camp.

Many of Makhmour’s residents began fleeing military brutality in Turkey in the early 1990s, when the blood-soaked PKK-led Kurdish insurgency was at its peak. The militants have a firm grip over the camp, where giant images of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan are commonplace.

Some Western aid workers caustically refer to the place as a rest and recreation center for PKK fighters pausing from their ongoing battle against Turkish forces for self-rule inside Turkey. With its sand-colored cinderblock dwellings, multiple schools and convenience stores, the dusty settlement looks more like a small town than a camp.

Repatriating an estimated 14,000 Turkish Kurds who live in the desolate desert outpost was envisaged under now stalled peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK. With few prospects of them resuming, it seems they will be stuck there for the foreseeable future.

Amberin Zaman is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse who has covered Turkey, the Kurds and Armenia for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016. She was a columnist for the liberal daily Taraf and the mainstream daily Haberturk before switching to the independent Turkish online news portal Diken in 2015. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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