ISTANBUL // When the bombing started, Haci Encu and his fellow smugglers ducked for cover.
Mr Encu, 19, and about 40 other Kurds from villages on the Turkish side of the border with Iraq, had set out with their mules to smuggle cigarettes and petrol from Iraq into the Turkish province of Sirnak, just like many times before. Such smuggling has a long tradition in this poor region of Turkey, and civilian or military authorities rarely interfere.
But on the evening of December 28, it was different. Mr Encu and others said they heard the unmanned drones, followed by the roar of warplanes and the sound of heavy explosions. Mr Encu and two other smugglers found shelter in a little river bed, but others were not so lucky.
"Right on the border, about 20 people were annihilated in the first wave of the air attack," Mr Encu told a delegation of non-governmental groups investigating the incident, according to a report of the probe published this week. Mr Encu is a member of a Kurdish clan that lost 26 people in the air raid. All in all, 35 civilians died in the bombardment. The government and the military in Ankara said the attack was ordered because the smugglers were mistaken for Kurdish rebels.
But a week after the air raid, opponents and supporters of the government said there is evidence that the attack was intentional. In interviews with The National this week, representatives of both the Kurdish community and Turkey's ruling party expressed concern that political motives may have been behind the raid.
The attack in the district of Uludere, one of the worst incidents involving civilian deaths in almost 30 years of conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has heightened tensions between Kurds and Turks. As the government in Ankara and members of the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey's main Kurdish party, traded accusations, villagers attacked a local official in Uludere who visited the families of the victims to pay his respects.
Prosecutors in Sirnak province and authorities in Ankara have started investigations, and the government has announced it will compensate bereaved families. But it remains unclear who ordered the air strike and why.
However, officials in Sirnak province yesterday demanded the suspension of a military officer in the region because he may have been involved in the airstrike. In a statement quoted by Turkish media, the office of the governor of Sirnak said that Col Huseyin Onur Guney, deputy commander of a military unit in the region, should be suspended. The statement said the colonel was the officer in charge on the day of the attack.
But the government in Ankara says it is not to blame.
"There was definitely no intention" to kill civilians, said Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and government spokesman, after a cabinet meeting on Monday.
Efforts by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, to reassure the public and Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds have failed to quell speculation.
Suspicions are based on the fact that the air strike took place even though authorities in Uludere were well aware that there was smuggling going on in the region. "Everyone knew it," Nusirevan Elci, the president of the bar association in Sirnak province said in a telephone interview this week. "Most people here are saying that the smugglers were killed intentionally." Selahattin Demirtas, the BDP leader, has called the Uludere incident "a clear massacre against civilians". The BDP accuses the Erdogan government of repressing Turkey's Kurds.
Mehmet Emin Dindar, a member of Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) representing Sirnak province, confirmed that smuggling was known to be a source of income for poor villagers. "I wouldn't even call it smuggling," Mr Dindar said by telephone. "I would call it tax-free trade."
Fears that the villagers may have become the victims of an intentional attack rather than of a tragic mistake were boosted by statements of survivors. Servet Encu, another member of the Encu clan who was one of the smugglers, told the delegation of NGOs that troops stopped the smugglers near the border on the evening of December 28.
"Soldiers have stopped us before, but they always let us pass after a while," Servet Encu told the delegation.
"This time, they blocked our way completely and did not allow us to go on. When the bombing started, the soldiers got into their vehicles and left."
Hasim Encu, the mayor of one of the border villagers, told a delegation of opposition politicians that the air strike had been "intentional and preordained". Mr Erdogan knew details of the incident that had not been made public yet, he said according to news reports.
Mr Dindar, the AKP politician, also said he suspected that the raid was politically motivated sabotage. But unlike the BDP, he pointed the finger at government opponents within the armed forces bent on undermining efforts by Ankara to solve the Kurdish conflict. "Look at the Arinc speech," he said, referring to recent remarks by the deputy prime minister, in which he promised to widen Kurdish rights. "That made some people nervous," Mr Dindar said.
Neither Mr Dindar, Mr Elci nor the BDP offered concrete evidence for their theories. But Turkey has seen suspected cases of deadly provocations in the Kurdish conflict before. In one incident, an army sergeant is among suspects on trial in the city of Van, charged with killing a man in a bomb attack on a bookshop in nearby Hakkari province in 2005. Prosecutors claim the suspects attacked the bookshop to increase tensions in the predominantly Kurdish region.