Diyarbakir (Turkey):  Turkish air strikes killed 23 Kurdish villagers in the southeast near the Iraqi border early on Thursday, an official of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said.

Provincial officials found 23 bodies at Ortasu village in Sirnak province, councillor Ertan Eris told pro-Kurdish Roj TV from the bombing site. Nineteen of those killed have so far been identified.

Eris said the dead were among a group of 35 to 40 people,their ages ranging from 16 to 20, who had crossed the border for smuggling purposes.

Local security sources added the group was smuggling gas and sugar into Turkey from northern Iraq and may have been mistaken for Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels.

Eris said the death toll was likely to rise further, with snow and rough terrain complicating the search for bodies.

He had at first put the death toll at 11.

Local security officials confirmed the bombing but declined to give the number of casualties.

The pro-Kurdish Firat news agency said 35 villagers, including children, were killed in the strikes.

The Turkish military launched an operation in northern Iraq in October after a PKK attack killed 24 soldiers in the town of Cukurca near the Iraqi border, the army's biggest loss since 1993.

PKK rebels usually launch attacks on Turkish targets from their rear bases in northern Iraq.

The army then killed 36 Kurdish rebels in Kazan Valley of Hakkari province, near the Iraqi border.

Media reports in Turkey and abroad, as well as the BDP, have accused Turkey of using chemical weapons against the rebels but the army denied the allegations.

The PKK, which took up arms in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed about 45,000 lives, is labelled a terrorist outfit by Ankara and much of the international community.

(Agencies)