A Turkish military attack on an armed Iranian group in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in late June failed to take adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said today in a press release.
The airstrike on June 25 killed a member of the Iranian Kurdish Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and wounded three others. But the attack also injured at least six civilians and damaged the popular Kuna Masi water resort, at a confluence of fresh water wells and springs in the Sharbazar district.
The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The group has been waging an armed insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. Violence in the largely Kurdish Southeast has escalated since the collapse of a ceasefire in 2015.
“The Turkish military strike on opposition fighters in a resort area seriously injured several civilians and could have harmed many more,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While the fighters were wrong to put the civilians at risk, Turkey also needs to take all practical precautions to limit harm to civilians.”
On June 15 the Turkish Defense Ministry announced Operations Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger “against terrorists in northern Iraq.” On June 25 the Defense Ministry reported that it had carried out attacks on at least 81 locations in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and by July 14 said it had killed 62 “terrorists.” Some Iranian army shelling of PJAK forces also took place over the same period.
Salar Mohammed Salih, 45, a resident of the village of Kuna Masi, said that on June 25 he was inside his cousin Kywan Kawa Salih’s convenience store, just a few meters from the water resort. At about 5:15 a white pickup truck parked about 20 meters from the shop entrance. Four men in civilian clothes got out of the pickup and one entered the shop while the rest stayed near the car.
Salih said he could tell from the man’s accent that he was from Iran and that the only Iranians in the area were PJAK fighters. A few minutes after he left the shop he saw a munition hit the pickup and a second one hit the shop at the same time. According to a local media outlet, it was a drone strike that landed between the car and the shop.
At the time of the attack, Salih estimates, about 40 civilians had been at the water resort. Video footage shows at least one fragment landing in the pool right next to people.
A few days after the attack, the Turkish consul general in Erbil reportedly told reporters that Turkey would continue targeting the PKK and its “wings,” without mentioning PJAK specifically.
“The Turkish military appears not to have taken adequate precautions in this attack to minimize civilian harm, nor to have established whether predictable civilian harm would outweigh the concrete and direct military advantage it anticipated from the attack, making the attack unlawfully disproportionate.” Human Rights Watch said, “The PJAK fighters also endangered civilians by their presence in the populated area.”
The attack came six days after another Turkish airstrike had killed three civilians. A local, Mahdi Rekani, 55, said that on June 19, his son Azad Mahdi, 26, and two friends, Mukhlis Adam and Deman Omar, 28, all construction workers, were heading to Shaji, a village in Sheladiz subdistrict, for a picnic.
Adam’s brother told the local media that he sped to the site, where he also saw the bodies of two PKK fighters nearby, and that other PKK members quickly removed them from the area. Rekani did not know whether his son and friends had interacted with the PKK but said the PKK has a presence in the mountains there and that their fighters regularly come down to the main road to stop and question civilians who pass through the area.
In a June 26 statement the Turkish Defense Ministry denied that there had been any civilian casualties since the beginning of the new assault.
According to Wille, “The Turkish forces showed incredible misjudgment by attacking a small group of fighters in the midst of a popular water resort, the laws of war prohibit attacks in which the known danger to civilians exceeds the expected military gain.”
Human Rights Watch said in the press release it is unaware of any Turkish army investigations of previous possible laws-of-war violations. But the rights watchdog asked the Turkish authorities to “compensate victims of any unlawful attacks” and said, “Iraqi authorities should also press for Turkish investigations and compensation in the case of unlawful attacks.”