A showdown between Iran and the United States over Tehran's threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers worsened Wednesday as warships from each side backed up an increasingly hostile exchange of words.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards rejected a warning from the U.S. military, which has vowed not to "tolerate" such a closure, saying they would act decisively "to protect [their] vital interests."
The tough language came as Iran's Navy said a U.S. aircraft carrier entered a zone where Tehran's ships and aircraft were engaged in 10 days of war games that are designed to show the Islamic republic's military might.
The area was in waters to the east of the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point at the entrance to the Gulf through which more than a third of the world's tanker-borne oil passes.
Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned Tuesday that "not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz" if the West followed through with planned additional sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman replied Wedesday with a declaration that "interference with the transit of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated." But Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, told the Fars news agency Thursday that "our response to threats is threats."
"We have no doubt about our being able to carry out defensive strategies to protect our vital interests. We will act more decisively than ever," the Agence France-Presse quoted Salami as saying. "The Americans are not qualified to give us permission [to carry out military maneuvers]."
Iran's Navy chief, Adm. Habibollah Sayari, said the U.S. aircraft carrier was monitored by Iranian forces as it passed from the Strait of Hormuz to the Gulf of Oman, according to Iranian state television. The network showed footage of an aircraft carrier being followed by an Iranian plane.
An Iranian Navy spokesman, Commodore Mahmoud Mousavi, told the official Press TV that the aircraft carrier went "inside the maneuver zone" where Iranian ships were conducting their exercises. The detection of the U.S. aircraft carrier demonstrated that Iran's naval forces are precisely monitoring all moves by extra-regional powers in the region, he said.
The U.S. aircraft carrier was believed to be the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, one of the American Navy's biggest warships. U.S. officials said Wednesday that the ship and its accompanying carrier strike group was moving through the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. maintains a Navy presence in the Gulf in large part to ensure oil traffic there is unhindered.
Iran, which is already subject to several rounds of sanctions over its nuclear program, has repeatedly said it could target the Strait of Hormuz if attacked or if its economy were strangled.
Air Strike Kills 45 Villagers in 'Operational Mistake'
Thirty-five villagers were killed and another was injured in a Turkish military air raid along the Iraqi border Wednesday, in what a senior ruling party member declared "an operational fault."
The assault, which utilized F-16s and unmanned aerial vehicles, was conducted near the Ortasu village of Uludere in the southeastern province of Şırnak, the Doğan news agency reported Thursday.
The raid was "an operational mistake" and the ensuing investigation will determine those responsible, the deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Hüseyin Çelik, told reporters in Ankara Thursday, after a meeting of the party management.
"According to initial information, those [killed] people were not terrorists but smugglers. The operation was carried out on the presumption that they were PKK [outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party] terrorists. It was not intentional. Unfortunately, it was an operational mistake," Çelik said, adding that the ultimate conclusion would be reached once the investigation was complete.
The cross-border air raid was launched to target the PKK following intelligence that terrorist groups had gathered in preparation for attacks on military outposts and bases at the border, the General Staff said in a written statement posted on its Web site.
Administrative and judicial inquiries are under way into the operation, which began at 9:37 p.m. on Wednesday, after unmanned surveillance aircraft detected a group of people in the Sinat-Haftanin area moving toward the Turkish border, the statement said, adding that the bombardment lasted 47 minutes.
Detailing intelligence gathered ahead of the strike, the statement said the authorities had obtained information that "a large number of terrorists were sent as reinforcement to Sinat-Haftanin after the chieftains of the terror organization issued orders for retribution following the losses they had suffered recently."
Surveillance at the frontier was stepped up after intelligence continued to accumulate, indicating that PKK militants would cross from northern Iraq to attack military facilities at the border, it said, adding that images obtained from a drone showed a group moving toward the frontier at 6:39 p.m.
The General Staff said the testimonies of PKK militants who had surrendered in the past indicated "the terrorists use beasts of burden to carry heavy weapons, ammunition and explosives from Iraq over the border."
It described Sinat-Haftanin as an uninhabited area where the PKK's major camps were located.
Çelik conveyed the AKP's "sorrow" to the victims' families.
"Turkey is a state based on the rule of law. If it turns out that any fault or any deficiency was involved, all what the rule of law requires will be done," he said.
Çelik said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had briefed his aides on the issue during the meeting on the basis of talks with the chief of the General Staff, the interior minister and local officials in Şırnak.
"This unfortunate incident will not hamper Turkey's struggle against terrorism. The struggle will continue until this evil is finished off," he said.
The bodies of 32 people killed in the airstrike were first brought to Ortasu village by their relatives and later taken to Uludere for autopsies. Three bodies kept in Şırnak State Hospital, where one injured villager is under treatment, were also to be sent to Uludere.
Uludere Mayor Fehmi Yanan said the bodies had severe burn wounds, indicating "proof that they were killed by bombs from F-16 fighter jets."
The Doğan news agency said the victims included village guards and students and that 28 of the 35 victims were from the same family.
Smuggling is very common in the region and the most popular goods to smuggle are cigarettes and diesel. A villager told the pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency, which is known to have links to the outlawed PKK, that the soldiers in the region were aware of the smuggling business, but ignored it "as long as the villagers do not bring arms and drugs."
Opposition Blames Sirnak Raid on Government
Turkey's opposition parties have strongly criticized an air raid that killed up to 35 people in the southeastern province of Şırnak, putting the blame on the government.
Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş told reporters Thursday that the killings were "clearly a massacre."
Demirtaş also repeated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's earlier words to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying: "An administration that massacres its own people has no legitimacy."
A group of 50 smugglers crossed the border into Turkey and were stopped and redirected by soldiers from a nearby outpost right before they reached their village, according to Demirtaş.
"The airstrike happened on the route they were directed to," he said. "Those killed were young people who made a living by smuggling. There were people studying for university exams among them and the soldiers at the outpost knew it."
Media outlets and the government were silent in the face of the killings, Demirtaş said, adding that the BDP had declared a three-day period of mourning.
Senior members of the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, joined in criticizing the operation. CHP Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu called for a thorough investigation into the "grave" incident and the punishment of those responsible.
"If a solution is still being sought for the Kurdish problem through means outside democracy, then we are at a dead end," he said.
CHP Tunceli Deputy Hüseyin Aygün questioned the efficiency of intelligence gathering and the cross-border raids.
"What kind of intelligence suddenly turns villagers, who have been known to live on smuggling for years, into PKK militants who are being bombed and killed? This intelligence must be questioned. We must debate also how beneficial cross-border operations," Aygün said.
Another CHP deputy chairman was less critical of the raid.
"It is understandable that a country should protect its domestic security and borders," said Deputy Chairman Gökhan Günaydın. "However, operations conducted on intelligence must be handled carefully. Even if these people were engaged in an illegal activity such as smuggling, they do not deserve to be bombed to death."
Several demonstrations were held across the country Thursday to protest the deadly air raid. Police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters in central Istanbul, while shops remained closed in many provinces and districts in southeastern Turkey in protest at the killings. A group gathered in the eastern province of Hakkari's Yüksekova district to protest the killings.
BDP Deputy Esat Canan read a press statement, calling the incident a "massacre" and declared the AKP responsible for it. Another BDP deputy, Ertuğrul Kürkçü, also pinned the blame on the government.
"When we read the written statement of the Turkish Armed Forces today, we saw this massacre was part of a war plan. The responsibility for the massacre belongs to the government, especially Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin and Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay," Kürkçü said in an Istanbul press conference.
AKP deputy leader Hüseyin Çelik urged the BDP to restrain itself.
"They can very well declare mourning, but encouraging the people to violence will only cause more suffering," he said in Ankara.
President Vetoes Disputed Bill Hiking Deputy Pensions
President Abdullah Gül Thursday partially vetoed a bill increasing lawmakers' pensions on the grounds that the rise would damage public sensitivities. The announcement came after Gül invited Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek to the presidency to talk on the matter.
"The reason for the hike could not be understood," a presidential statement released late Thursday said.
The bill, which will be revisited after the opening of the Parliament in early January, raised MPs' pensions from 4,980 to around 8,000 Turkish Liras a month. The rise caused uproar among the oppositional parties, although some of their deputies had also backed the rise.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, sent a letter to Gül asking him to return the bill to Parliament for revision. Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, echoed Kılıçdaroğlu's calls.
"Although the legislative body has the discretionary power in deciding such rises, it was observed that this high rise in pensions for eight years term caused unease among the public," the statement said.
Earlier this month, Gül vetoed a bill reducing the penalties for match-fixers, subsequently causing limited tension between him and the government, which had strongly backed the amendments.
Gül approved the amendments after they were resent to him unchanged.
Turkey, Russia Gas Deal Results in Discount for Ankara
Ankara scored "a serious discount" on Russian natural gas after agreeing to allow Moscow to build a pipeline through Turkish waters, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said.
"Turkey is in a better position in terms of natural gas compared with three months ago. The South Stream Project opened a space to improve our strategic partnership with Russia," Yıldız told reporters.
The minister said the discount Turkey received on Russian gas would be valid until the end of contract terms in 2021 and 2025.
Yıldız, who signed the agreement with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, said Turkey agreed to the South Stream project to fulfill its task of helping supply Europe's energy demand.
"Although the energy chapter has not been raised in our negotiations with the European Union, Turkey allowed this project to fulfill its requirements regarding energy. After this deal, no project will be left dependent on Turkey's consent. I hope the EU will open the energy chapter in our negotiations," Yıldız said.
Turkey will purchase three million cubic meters of Russian gas that was originally slated for "take or pay" contracts, he said. Turkey's state-run pipeline company, BOTAŞ, withdrew from Westline due to a price dispute with Russia in September. Since then, Turkish private firms have been bargaining on possible gas exports from Russia.
"If private companies sign an agreement for the Westline, they can take the natural gas as of June 2012," Yıldız said.
The energy minister said the Trans-Anatolia pipeline would not overshadow the Nabucco project. Turkey and Azerbaijan signed a memorandum of understanding Monday to establish a venture to build the Trans-Anatolia pipeline, which will stretch across Turkey from east to west and possess a capacity of 16 billion cubic meters a year.
"Trans-Anatolia will not overshadow Nabucco, but if Trans-Anatolia can be carried out, Nabucco would take the natural gas from the Bulgarian border instead of Georgia," he said.
Freed Palestinian to Marry in Capital
Ayman Abu Khalil, one of 11 Palestinians sent to Turkey after Israel released them from jail as part of a deal in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, said he invited Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to his wedding at Büyükhanlı Park Hotel, the Turkish daily Vatan reported Thursday.
The other 10 Palestinians exiled to Turkey will also be among the 200 guests at the wedding. Palestine's Ambassador to Ankara Nabil Maruf is also expected to attend.
Khalil, 39, said he was involved in kidnapping three Israeli soldiers in order to push for the release of Palestinian inmates when Israeli forces arrested him. Khalil spent 18 years in jail and was engaged to his relative Ayat Zeyadah, 30, when he was in prison. His name was added to the list of prisoners to be released at the last minute.
Khalil said he chose to live in Turkey because it was a Muslim country and he will live in Turkey for the rest of his life. He said he first received a six-month residence permit in Turkey and all 11 Palestinians stayed together when they first came.
"Now they have told us that we are free to stay anywhere we want," Khalil said, adding that four of his fellow ex-inmates live in Ankara and the six others moved to Istanbul.
He said Palestine gave him financial aid, but he wants to earn a living from now on. Living in an apartment in Ankara, Khalil said he did not fear for his life.