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Three civilians killed near Makhmour Refugee Camp amongst spike in Turkish airstrikes

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A distinct spike in Turkish airstrikes emerged in northern Iraq between 14-15 April. Overnight between 14-15 April, Turkish aircraft conducted multiple airstrikes near Zini Warte village and other areas along the Qandil Mountains. A Peshmerga officer reported that four Peshmerga sustained minor injuries as a result of an airstrike near the 7th Peshmerga Brigade headquarters. The Turkish government claimed four PKK members were “neutralized”. PKK sources later acknowledged that three members were killed. Additional airstrikes were conducted in the Sidakan sub-district of northeastern Erbil province, and areas of the Amedi district in northern Dohuk province. Farms were damaged, but no civilian casualties were reported during the latter strikes.

The most significant airstrike affected an alleged PKK support zone in southwestern Erbil province. At approximately 13:00 on 15 April, a Turkish UAV conducted an airstrike affecting areas outside Makhmour Refugee Camp. Three civilian women were killed according to Makhmour Refugee Camp media department head Bewar Amin. This included one woman who was severely wounded and subsequently died. The victims were said to be tending livestock when they were struck.

GoI condemns airstrikes while KRG responses were muted:
The Security Media Cell confirmed an airstrike involving a Turkish UAV, condemning the action as a “violation of Iraqi airspace.” The Joint Operations Command also issued a statement condemning the airstrike as a “provocative act” and a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The Joint Operations Command said that such violations must not be repeated, adding that Iraq is fully prepared to cooperate with Turkey in order to control the security situation along the border. The GoI rarely discusses Turkish airstrikes in the KR-I, but will commonly denounce casualty-producing airstrikes in GoI-controlled territory such as Makhmour and Sinjar. Such condemnation has obviously failed to deter further airstrikes, at most reducing the frequency of such breaches of Iraqi sovereignty.

“The ministry condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the attack carried out by the Turkish side which resulted in the loss of life and property damage,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ahmed Sahaf. On 16 April, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Turkish ambassador Fatih Yildiz. Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim stressed “the need to stop such serious violations and respect the principles of good neighbourliness,” according to a statement. An unnamed Turkish government official countered that the Turkish government views the camp as a safe haven harboring PKK leadership personnel, noting “at the end this needs to be addressed.”

The KRG did not make an official statement condemning the Makhmour airstrike or the airstrike that wounded four Peshmerga members in the Qandil region. Such silence is far from unprecedented, reflecting the significant ties between the KRG and Turkish government, and joint opposition to the PKK.

Rare airstrike near Makhmour Refugee Camp amongst seasonal uptick in conflict activity:
The Makhmour Refugee Camp shelters over 12,000 PKK-supportive refugees from Turkey and their family members. The camp is guarded by PKK-affiliated personnel, and is viewed by Turkey as a PKK support zone accordingly. In recognition of the refugee camp’s protected status, relevant Turkish airstrikes are infrequently conducted in statement-type actions. Most airstrikes are assessed to target PKK outposts surrounding the camp, but civilian casualties are commonly inflicted. The 15 April airstrike represents the first airstrike near the camp since 19 July 2019. Conflicting casualty reports indicated five casualties amongst civilians and PKK members, including one PKK fatality. That incident occurred amongst a broader spike in Turkish airstrikes as part of the dynamic aftermath of the assassination of the Turkish diplomat in Erbil on 17 July 2019.

The specific trigger for the latest airstrike near the Makhmour Refugee Camp and the broader spike in airstrikes between 14-15 April is somewhat unclear. Some media outlets asserted that these actions may have formed a response to PKK attacks in the Akre district of Dohuk province in March, which allegedly killed approximately 100 Turkish soldiers according to undoubtedly inflated casualty reporting from PKK sources. Media references to Akre were erroneous, with the attacks actually taking place in Agri province of northeastern Turkey. Nevertheless, upticks in PKK activity in Turkey may have formed a contributing factor.

More tangible factors include regular attacks against Turkish military forces in active border environments in the KR-I as part of the spring fighting season. PKK sources regularly cite Turkish casualties during familiar stand-off style attacks against Turkish outposts. Confirmation of resulting casualties tends to be limited to attacks resulting in fatalities. The Turkish Ministry of Defense confirmed that two Turkish soldiers were killed during a mortar attack in the Haftanin region of northern Dohuk province on 25 March. Most recently on 15 April, the Turkish Ministry of Defense acknowledged that a Turkish soldier was killed by an IED or landmine emplaced by PKK members in the Hakurk region of northern Erbil province.

For further discussion and analysis please see our full report.

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