, BILGE, May 5 – Eight armed suspects have been arrested over the killing of 45 people, including six children and 16 women, at a wedding in southeastern Turkey, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said on Tuesday.
The attack was not linked to terrorism and appeared to have been triggered by a feud between residents in the village of Bilge, Atalay told a news conference before heading to Bilge.
Forty-five people, mostly women and children, were killed in the attack, officials and witnesses said.
"Unfortunately 45 citizens lost their lives… There are six wounded," Besir Atalay told reporters in Ankara.
Initial assessments, he said, rule out the possibility of a "terrorist attack" – a reference to separatist Kurdish rebels active in the region, adding that prosecutors were investigating the incident.
Villagers said the shooting might be linked to a dispute between families, or even a full-fledged blood feud.
Witnesses told AFP that four masked men, each coming from a different direction, hurled hand grenades and then opened fire at a crowd gathered in the village square, shortly after an imam, or a Muslim preacher, performed a religious ceremony.
The assailants then stormed into several houses, continuing to shoot, they said.
A local official relayed the account of a survivor, a 19-year-old woman, who said the attackers herded women and children into a room in one of the houses and then sprayed them with bullets.
Most victims were women and children, security sources said.
The assailants managed to escape in the dark as a sandstorm further worsened visibility in the area, several dozen kilometres (miles) from the Syrian border.
Blood feuds are frequent in Turkey’s Kurdish-populated regions, where mediaeval traditions persist, illiteracy is high and many see the gun as a legitimate tool to settle scores and defend one’s honour.
Hostilities are triggered by various reasons such as land disputes, unpaid debts, abductions or girls eloping with undesirable grooms.
Army troops sealed off Bilge after the incident 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 has targeted local civilians refusing to collaborate with the insurgency, especially in the early years of its campaign.
Many men in Bilge were members of the so-called village guard, a government-armed militia supporting the army in the fight against the PKK.
There were 32 households in the village and all inhabitants belonged to the same clan, Anatolia news agency reported.
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.