BILGE, Turkey (Reuters) - Masked men armed with assault rifles and grenades killed 44 people at a wedding party in southeast Turkey in a blood feud between families, authorities and residents said.
The bride and her groom were killed in Monday evening’s attack in Bilge, a village of around 250 people in the conservative heartland of mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.
The suspected gunmen and many of the victims bore the same family name, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said.
The Celebi family had been at odds over land, membership of state-sponsored village guards, and more recently over the bride, local residents said. The attack was sparked by revenge from one part of the Celebi family unhappy a relative had been passed over for a groom from another family in Diyarbakir.
Bodies started arriving late Tuesday for burial in mass graves dug by machine diggers. They had been taken temporarily to nearby morgues as the local one did not have enough space.
A imam, or a Muslim cleric, was among the dead.
“I am ashamed to be from here, this is brutality, it is like a natural disaster, an earthquake,” Mahmut Yildiz, 43, told Reuters. Pointing to the freshly dug graves, he said: “I don’t know how we will be able to live in peace.”
The attack was one of the worst involving civilians in the modern history of European Union candidate Turkey and highlighted the power tribes still wield in the region, increasing instability.
“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 before visiting the injured.
At least four masked attackers stormed two houses where guests had gathered for prayers after the wedding. The dead included 16 women and six children.
Men and women were found dead in separate rooms. Sevgi Celebi, the daughter of the former village chief, was being married when the attack occurred. The groom was named Habip Ari.
“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.
At least two people survived the 15-minute attack.
A Reuters reporter who visited the house where the 44 had been killed saw two rooms splattered with blood stains, women’s scarves lying on the ground and bullet holes in the walls.
“They ruined us all. I want them to get the biggest punishment possible. I wish fire in the houses of those who put fire in my house,” Sultan Celebi, 75, who lost four children, three daughters-in-laws and one grandchild, told state-run Anatolian news agency.
Marriages in the conservative southeast, where it is usual to carry weapons, can spark rivalry between clans because the groom’s family must often pay some kind of prize to the bride’s family for marriage, and sometimes the highest bidder wins.
The government has improved the rights of women in the impoverished and highly illiterate southeast but the EU says more needs to be done, including dealing with honor killings.
“No kind of tradition can justify this killing, no conscience can justify this kind of pain,” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in Ankara.
The scale of the latest attack will concern the government which is attempting to defuse tensions in the southeast, born of separatist conflict with PKK Kurdish guerrillas.
There have been calls to disarm village guards who number around 57,000 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 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. Critics say they use their status to settle family scores and take land.
The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, seeking an ethnic Kurdish homeland in the southeast. Some 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Security in the southeast is also regarded as key to improving stability in Turkey and reducing tensions with northern Iraq.
Additional reporting by Thomas Grove and Ibon Villelabeitia; Writing by Paul de Bendern; Editing by Robert Woodward