MARDIN, Turkey, (AP) – Turkish security forces on Tuesday detained eight gunmen suspected of fatally shooting 44 people, many of whom were praying, at an engagement ceremony in the rural southeast of the country.
Masked assailants with automatic weapons attacked the celebration Monday night in the village of Bilge, near the city of Mardin, in what appeared to be the result of a family feud, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said. Blood feuds occasionally happen among families in the region, where tribal ties and rivalries can eclipse the power of the state.
On Tuesday morning, four large earth-movers were seen digging graves for the victims in the village. Police allowed friends and relatives to enter Bilge, but journalists were kept out. Authorities also cut telephone communication with the village.
The dead included the engaged couple, and six other people were wounded. Two girls survived after the bodies of slain friends fell on top of them. Reports said the gunmen opened fire as men and women prayed in separate rooms in line with tradition in parts of Turkey.
Turkish media initially described the gathering as “dugun,” a term for a wedding celebration. However, Atalay and media outlets later used the term “nisan,” which refers to an engagement ceremony.
Atalay said eight suspects were in custody, and that some of their family names were the same as those of the victims.
“They were caught with their weapons,” he said. “The first indications are that it was the result of disputes, of animosity among relatives, within a family in the village.”
Citing unidentified authorities, CNN-Turk television said the attack may have occurred because one of the gunmen wanted to marry the engaged woman himself and he opposed the marriage. It said there was a family tie between the assailants and the couple who were killed.
NTV television, citing deputy Gov. Ferhat Ozen, earlier said the motive for the attack could be a feud between rival groups of pro-government village guards, who fight alongside Turkish troops against Kurdish rebels. Like many other villages in the region, Bilge has a number of guards.
Atalay had earlier said the attack had left 45 dead, but later corrected the toll to 44 dead. He said the dead included six children and 16 women.
Mehmet Besir Ayanoglu, the mayor of Mardin, told Channel 24 that he spoke to two survivors, both girls, who said at least two masked men stormed a house where the ceremony took place.
“They raided the house, we were in two rooms, they opened fire on everyone, they were wearing masks,” Ayanoglu quoted the girls as saying. The girls said they lay underneath the bodies of friends until the attack was over.
Seyhmus Balik, whose house is one kilometer (half a mile) from the village, told AP Television that he heard gunshots. After a short lull, he heard another round of gunshots, leading him to believe that the gunmen were firing on the injured.
Balik said most village guards had left Bilge at the time of the attack to assist Turkish troops in an operation against Kurdish rebels in a nearby region.
The attack occurred during the engagement ceremony of the daughter of Cemil Celebi, a former village official who was among the wounded. The daughter, Sevgi Celebi, her fiance, Habib Ari, his mother and sister were all killed, as was the Islamic cleric who was presiding over the ceremony. The Anatolia news agency said the attack lasted for 15 minutes.
For years, Turkey has struggled over how to trim the 70,000-strong village guard force without releasing masses of trained fighters onto the streets of the southeast, where unemployment in some areas reaches 50 percent.
The military has purged thousands of village guards suspected of favoring Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy in the southeast. Several hundred guards have also faced criminal charges.
The conflict between Kurdish guerrillas and government forces has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.