Turkey's air force attacked what it thought were Kurdish rebel targets near the country's border with Iraq, killing 35 people late Wednesday, but officials admitted that the evidence suggests they were smugglers mistaken for guerrillas.

The attacks occurred near the Turkish village of Ortasu in the province of Sirnak. Kurdish rebels are based across the border in northern Iraq.

The Turkish military initially said in a statement that it bombarded a zone on the Iraqi side of the frontier "often used" by rebels after drone planes and thermal cameras indicated "movements toward our border" by a group of people. 

Who are the Kurds?

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Kurds form an estimated 15 million to 20 million people, with their own culture and language, related to Persian, who live in the mountainous region straddling Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Most are Sunni Muslims and the largest group lives in southeastern Turkey.

The Kurds were promised independence when the Ottoman Empire was carved up after the First World War. But Turkey had a change of heart and suppressed Kurdish uprisings in the following decades.

The modern-day struggle began with the founding of the Kurdish Workers' Party, the PKK, in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, currently in a Turkish prison.

But the country's ruling party later confirmed that the victims were almost certainly smugglers bringing cigarettes into Turkey from Iraq.

"According to initial reports, these people were smugglers and not terrorists," said Huseyin Celik, vice-president of the Justice and Development Party.

He said officials are investigating possible intelligence failures that led to the strikes and expressed regret for the deaths, suggesting the government would compensate the victims' families.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party called it a massacre.

The 35 victims would make it one of the largest single-day civilian death tolls in Turkey's 27-year battle with the rebels, who are fighting for autonomy in the mainly Kurdish southeastern part of the country.

Video footage taken after the attack shows people on the Turkish side of the border carrying bodies through snowy mountain passes on donkeys and by truck. In other shots, villagers examine dozens of bodies wrapped in blankets and laid out side-by-side on the floor of a building as part of the effort to identify them.

Smuggling common, politician says

Pro-Kurdish legislator Nazmi Gur said the 35 dead were mostly teenagers trying to make money by carrying supplies from Iraq into Turkey on donkeys or horses. Gur said that smuggling, typically of diesel fuel or sugar, is often the only livelihood in such villages and that officials would have known that smugglers would be operating in the area.

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A still image from a Turkish news video shows residents of the mountain village of Ortasu pouring into the streets the morning after the attacks, amid ambulances summoned to deal with casualties. (Reuters)

Kurdish rebels belonging to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, have long used northern Iraq as a springboard for hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets in their campaign for autonomy.

Turkey's air force has launched dozens of air raids this year on suspected rebel bases and other targets in northern Iraq and along the Turkish side of the alpine border. Turkey, along with many other countries, including Canada, considers the PKK a terrorist group. 

Recently, the United States has deployed four Predator drones to Turkey from Iraq following the withdrawal of American troops from the country, seeking to assist Turkey in its fight against the rebels.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict since 1984.

With files from The Associated Press