Turkey in mourning after 13 soldiers are killed in helicopter crash, including first female commander


A military helicopter crashed shortly after taking off from its base in Şırnak, southeast Turkey, killing everyone on board. Among the 13 victims was Lt. Col. Songül Yakut, 41, the country’s first female commander, and Major Gen. Aydoğan Aydın, who had played a leading role in combating terror group the PKK.

The crash is believed to be a tragic accident. According to a statement from the Turkish Army, the Eurocopter AS532 Cougar hit a high-voltage power line soon after it left the Şenoba Brigade Command at 20.55 on Wednesday, 31 May.

The officers were returning to their military base after inspecting local units in Şırnak’s Şenoba district as part of their ongoing campaign to counter terror operations in the area. Security experts stated that military helicopters in the region have been forced to fly low due to the threat of rocket attacks.

The crash occurred just two kilometres after take off. Ammunition on board the helicopter is thought to have exploded, instantly killing everyone on board. The remains of the craft were found in a rural field.

One eyewitness, local man Ali Belek who was one of the first to arrive at the scene, told Doğan News Agency: “I saw the helicopter burning and heard the sound of bullets exploding. We couldn’t get closer.”

Songül Yakut made history aged 28

Lt. Col. Yakut became synonymous with change being ushered into the Turkish military, proving this was no longer a male bastion.

She was born in the eastern city of Malatya and lost her father at a young age. She always dreamed of becoming a soldier and joined the gendarmerie after completing military school in 1997 with the rank of lieutenant. She made history after being appointed commander of the Beypazarı gendarmerie base aged 28 years old – the first woman in Turkey to hold such a position.

Songül Yakut became a symbol of change in the Turkish Army

In 2012, she was appointed head of the Gendarmerie General Command’s Struggle Against Domestic Violence and Children unit. Her new role built on her earlier military career where she had visited abused women in villages near to her Beypazarı base to offer them support.

Her promotion to captain came a year earlier than expected. Her superiors believed her academic achievements, which included a Masters Degree, and successful military and outfield work merited her advancement.

In 2013, Yakut’s life was turned upside down after she was caught up in the notorious Sledgehammer (Balyoz) case. She was suspended from duty as a result of the allegations that she was a member of a clandestine secularist group of soldiers planning a military coup. The allegations, against hundreds of officers, were later proved baseless. The government claimed FETÖ had used its infiltrators in the police and judiciary to stage sham trials to imprison officers perceived to be a threat to its own power-grabbing plans.

After being cleared of any wrong-doing, Yakut wrestled with the idea of leaving the army, but told friends she loved her job too much. She was later posted to the country’s southeast, during which time she was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

Major Gen. Aydoğan Aydın at the forefront of fighting the PKK

Major Gen. Aydoğan Aydın. Photo by AA

Since graduating from the Turkish Military Academy in 1987, Maj. Gen. Aydın has been involved in significant campaigns against the PKK. His unit famously neutralised PKK troops located in camps in northern Iraq in 1997 and 1998.

At the time of his death, he was spearheading a major offensive against the PKK in the Kato Mountains in Şanlıurfa – a PKK stronghold since its first attack in August 1984. The region has endured violence ever since.

Aydın also stood firm against last summer’s failed coup attempt. He was in Hakkari province when the coup got under way. He immediately contacted his unit in Kayseri to instruct them to remain in their barracks, before informing his superiors and the Kayseri Gov. Süleyman Kamçı that he and his troops would not be involved in the disloyal act.

“I’m with my state and the people. Not one soldier will be leaving the military barracks from my unit,” Aydın told Kamçı.

President Erdoğan: “we will never forget the heroism of these soldiers”

Following the tragedy, President Erdoğan offered his condolences to the families of the victims and the nation. He said: “We and our nation are deeply saddened by the loss of our soldiers, among whom were one major general that used to manage the operations in the region and officers of various ranks.”

“As the people and the country, we will never forget the heroism of these soldiers of ours, which enabled us to achieve great success in the fight against terror in recent months.”