Image: Villagers mourn in Bilge village
Osman Orsal  /  Reuters
Villagers mourn in Bilge village, the scene of a massacre, in southeast Turkey's Mardin province.
updated 5/5/2009 8:39:26 PM ET 2009-05-06T00:39:26

Victims of a deadly assault on an engagement ceremony in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast were buried side by side, and authorities detained 11 suspects accused of killing the betrothed couple — whose wedding they opposed — along with relatives and friends.

The death toll of 44, including three pregnant women, highlighted the grisly lengths to which some tradition-steeped clans will go to defend what they view as the honor of the family or tribe. The killings Monday night happened in a poor, rural region where civilians have endured years of fighting between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish rebels who seek autonomy.

Villagers in Bilge, near the city of Mardin and close to the Syrian border, carried wooden coffins on their shoulders after a funeral ceremony Tuesday during which men stood on the grass, praying behind a Muslim cleric. They removed bodies wrapped in white burial shrouds and lowered them into graves, hastily dug by earthmovers hours earlier.

Simple stones served as gravestones.

Dispute among families
Wailing women slapped their legs in grief as they watched the burial from a distance. Most wore traditional white or black headscarves over their long dresses. Soldiers prevented journalists from approaching the burials.

Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency said the masked attackers had wanted the young woman, Sevgi Celebi, to marry one among their own group of friends or relatives but that her family would not allow it.

It cited unidentified villagers as saying there was a dispute between the attackers' family and the family of the would-be groom, and that Celebi's family had resisted pressure to cancel the marriage plans.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, however, said the families also were engaged in a feud over some fishing farms near the village, the Hurriyet newspaper reported on its Web site late Tuesday.

"There is a financial issue," Hurriyet quoted Ergin as saying. "All of the 11 suspects in detention are giving different testimonies. Although a woman is said to be the motive, I don't think it is satisfactory."

He said the investigation was continuing.

"No customs and mores can be used as an excuse for this massacre," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier told ruling party lawmakers in a weekly address in parliament. "This is the painful price we are paying for such customs and mores."

Six children among dead
Erdogan said the attack was "the result of a feud between two families" and that six children, 17 women and 21 men died. He said some suspects had the same family name as the victims.

"The people were killed at a happy event, during a ceremony, while praying," Erdogan said. "The fact that they pointed guns and massacred children, defenseless people, is atrocious."

Interior Minister Besir Atalay said the victims included three pregnant women, and that eight armed suspects were captured.

Villager Osman Celebi told Atalay that the attack was carried out by his sisters' children, according to Anatolia.

Celebi said the assailants wanted to kill everyone so that there would be no witnesses and authorities would believe the attack was carried out by Kurdish rebels.

Like other villages in the region, Bilge has a force of pro-government village guards who fight alongside the Turkish military against the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party. But 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.

Weapons widespread in the region
The conflict between government forces and Kurdish guerrillas, whose strongholds lie in the southeast and across the border in northern Iraq, has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984. Weapons are widespread in the region, where tribal ties and rivalries can eclipse the power of the state.

According to witness and other reports, the few survivors of the 15-minute rampage in Bilge included two girls who concealed themselves beneath the bodies of their slain friends during the shootings in a house. Masked gunmen opened fire as men and women prayed in separate rooms in line with tradition in parts of Turkey.

One teenage girl said she lost six members of her family. "I heard the shooting and I hid in the barn because I was afraid. I was really afraid," the girl said on television footage released by Turkey's Dogan news agency.

Sultan Celebi, another survivor, said she lost most of her family.

"My father, my mother, my nephews, they are all gone," Celebi told HaberTurk television.

'There were bodies everywhere'
Abdullah Akan was one of the first villagers who entered the house after the shooting.

"There were bodies everywhere when I entered the house. The imam in the front and the men lined up behind him, all were dead," daily Hurriyet's Web site quoted Akan as saying. "Women and children were in a separate room, the inside was a bloodbath. I have not seen such savagery in my life."

Opposition lawmaker Canan Aritman urged the government to take steps toward eradicating the tribal system, though she did not elaborate.

"It is something that doesn't exist even in the most primitive societies," said Aritman, a member of a parliamentary panel investigating so-called "honor killings" within traditional families.

Turkey, vying for membership in the European Union, has struggled to end so-called "honor killings" that still occur despite an overhaul of the penal code that mandates severe punishments for family members who kill, force or encourage another member to kill a relative believed to have disgraced the family.

Dozens of women are killed by relatives in Turkey each year for allegedly disgracing the family, some for as little as being seen speaking to men, according to human rights activists.

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