44 dead in Turkish wedding massacre

BILGE: Masked gunmen stormed a wedding party in Turkey's Kurdish region hurling grenades and firing machine guns in an attack which left 44 people dead -- half of them women and children, authorities said Tuesday.

Eight people have been arrested over what Interior Minister Besir Atalay said was a blood feud between two families.

Four masked men entered the village square in Bilge just after a Muslim preacher had completed the wedding ceremony late on Monday, and started throwing hand grenades, witnesses told AFP.

They then opened fire at the crowd and stormed several houses, continuing to shoot, they said.

One 19-year-old woman said the attackers herded women and children into a room in one house and sprayed them with bullets, according to a witness account relayed by a local official.

Atalay said six children and 16 women were among the 44 dead. Three other villagers were wounded, he added.

The assailants escaped in the dark as a sandstorm cut visibility in the area, which is near the Syrian border.

The interior minister said the massacre was not linked to terrorism -- a reference to separatist Kurdish rebels active in the region -- and appeared to have been triggered by a feud between villagers.

"An initial assessment suggests that the attack was triggered by enmity and dispute between families. We are still working on the case so I do not want to speak in definite terms," the minister told a news conference in the provincial capital of Mardin before heading to the village.

Villagers had also suggested that the shooting was linked to a blood feud between rival families.

There were 32 households in the village and all inhabitants belonged to the same clan, Anatolia news agency reported.

Such feuds are frequent in Turkey's Kurdish-populated regions, where medieval traditions persist, illiteracy is high and many see the gun as a legitimate tool to settle scores.

Hostilities are triggered by land disputes, unpaid debts, abductions or girls eloping with someone from a rival clan.

Army troops sealed off Bilge and launched a massive operation to hunt down the assailants.

Ambulances shuttled between the village and Mardin city, where the bodies and the wounded were taken.

Television footage showed relatives wailing outside a hospital, some throwing themselves to the ground in grief.

The separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community, has waged a bloody 24-year campaign for self-rule in the southeast.

The group targeted civilians who refuse to collaborate with the insurgency, especially in the early years of its campaign.

Many men in Bilge are members of the village guard, a government-armed militia supporting the army in the fight against the PKK.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was closely following the incident, Atalay said, adding that he would travel to the village Tuesday, together with the justice minister.