Almost three dozen Kurds were killed by Turkish air strikes in the southeastern corner of the country near the Iraqi border on Wednesday evening, according to officials.

The Turkish military claimed that its warplanes were targeting rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is seeking an autonomous Kurdish state in the region. Army officials also said the attack was conducted following intelligence reports suggesting that Kurd rebels were planning to assault Turkish security bases in the area.

In a statement, the Turkish military said: “As a result of intelligence received from various sources and technical analyses carried out, we understood that terrorist groups, which also included senior leaders, gathered in the region and that they were readying to stage attacks on our outposts and bases along the border; the relevant troops were warned.”

The Dogan news agency said the attack occurred close to the village of Uludere in Sirnak province.

Provincial governor Vahdettin Ozkan told the Anatolian news agency: A crisis centre is being formed at the scene and prosecutors and security officers were sent there. The incident is being investigated in detail.”

However, other reports claimed that the victims were actually smugglers mistaken for rebels by the unmanned drone missiles used in the bombardment.

According to Today’s Zaman, an English language Turkish newspaper, most of the dead are believed to have been teenagers.

One of the survivors of the air strike, a man named Servet Encuk, told the Kurdish Firat news agency: We were on our way back [from Iraq] when the jets began to bomb us.”

Fehmi Yaman, the mayor of Uludere, told media: We have 30 corpses, all of them are burned. The [Turkish] state knew they were smuggling - this is unacceptable.

A prominent politician Selahattin Demirta?, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), called the attack a “massacre.” BDP has called for a period of mourning for the victims.

The border between Turkey and Iraq is a haven for smugglers of cigarettes, fuel and other contraband. However, PKK soldiers based in Iraq have also crossed the border to stage attacks on Turkish security forces in the past.

Ankara has been waging an aggressive campaign against Kurdish since October when PKK forces killed two dozen Turkish soldiers in an attack on a military base in the heavily Kurdish southeast.