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Turkish wedding attack kills 44 in blood feud

Ankara, May 5, 2009

Masked gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades attacked a wedding party in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey, killing 44 people including many women and children, the interior minister said.

The attack on Monday evening was one of the worst involving civilians in Turkey's modern history.

Interior Minister Besir Atalay said eight people had been detained. He said initial evidence showed the attack was a result of a blood feud between families and not the work of separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerrillas.

"The state prosecutor has been working all night, listening to the accounts of eyewitnesses. Eight people have been caught and detained, and their weapons confiscated. This can be understood as a blood feud between two families," Atalay told a news conference.

He said 44 had been killed in the attack, including 16 women and six children. Earlier, authorities had said 45 had died.

Television broadcasters said there had been a blood feud between two families in the small village in recent years.

Atalay said those detained and those who had been killed shared the same last name, pointing to inter-clan violence.

The deputy governor of the province of Mardin, Ahmet Ferhat Ozen, told Reuters by telephone the assailants stormed a house in Bilge village near Sultankoy, some 20 km (12 miles) from Mardin, hurling grenades and opening fire on wedding guests.

"There were a few people, they broke into the house and started spraying the place with bullets, hitting both men and women, their faces were covered with masks," said a 20-year-old female eyewitness, who declined to be named.

She said there were some 200 people at the wedding party.

The assailants escaped from the isolated region of Turkey on the border with Syria before soldiers surrounded the village and cut off road access. Pursuit of the attackers was being hindered by a sandstorm, authorities said.

Local media said the families of both the bride and the groom included members of the Village Guard, a heavily armed state-backed militia set up to combat Kurdish separatist guerrillas and provide intelligence in southeast Turkey.

The fate of the bride and the groom was unknown.

State-run news agency Anatolian reported the daughter of the village chief, called a muhtar, was being married when the attack, which lasted 15 minutes, occurred.

"Evidence so far shows it was not the work of a terrorist group," Atalay told reporters when asked it the PKK was behind the attack.

Atalay briefed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on the attack.

Atalay, with Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin and Mardin parliamentarians, was planning to visit the village on Tuesday. The village head of Bilge, Hamit Celebi, and 10 family members were among the dead, Anatolian said.

Local rivalry spilling into deadly feuds is not unheard of in southeast Turkey, although it is rare for the death toll to be so high. The scale of the latest attack would be of deep concern to the government, which is attempting to defuse tensions in the southeast born of separatist conflict.

The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet said on its website that the attack took place in mid-evening and that four unidentified gunmen had been involved in the attack and then escaped.

There are some 57,000 state-sponsored village guards throughout Turkey's southeast. They are part of a controversial policy established in 1985 to set up a paramilitary force to protect villages against PKK attacks, patrol the rugged mountains and help fight the separatists.

But their right to carry arms, to inform on suspected separatist activities and to kill in the name of the state has made them a force within the region, while critics say they use their status to settle family scores and take land.

The separatist PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, seeking an ethnic Kurdish homela


Tags: Turkish | feud |

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