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Forty-Five Killed In Attack On Turkish Wedding

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) -- Gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades attacked a wedding party in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey, killing at least 45 people, authorities said.

The attack on May 4 was one of the worst involving civilians in European Union candidate Turkey's recent history. Interior Minister Besir Atalay said initial evidence did not point to terrorism, suggesting he was ruling out involvement of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Television broadcasters said there had been a blood feud in the village in recent years.

The acting governor of the province of Mardin, Ahmet Ferhat Ozen, told Reuters by telephone the assailants, stormed a building in Bilge village near Sultankoy, some 20 kilometers from Mardin, and opened fire on wedding guests.

"There were a few people, they broke into the house and started spraying the place with bullets, hitting both men and women, their faces were covered with masks," a 20-year-old female eyewitness, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

She said there were some 200 people at the wedding party.

The assailants escaped from the isolated region of Turkey on the border with Syria before soldiers surrounded the village and cut off road access. Pursuit of the attackers was being hindered by a sandstorm, authorities said.

Local media said the families of both the bride and the groom included members of the Village Guard, a heavily armed state-backed militia set up to combat Kurdish separatist guerrillas and provide intelligence in southeast Turkey.

The fate of the bride and the groom was unknown.

State-run news agency Anatolian reported the daughter of the village chief, called a muhtar, was being married when the attack occurred.

Interior Minister Atalay did not mention the PKK, who seek an ethnic-Kurdish homeland in the southeast, but indicated his remarks on no apparent link to terrorism meant they were not involved.

Atalay briefed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the attack, Anatolian news agency said. He said 45 people had died and six more people were injured.

Atalay, with Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin and Mardin parliament members, was planning to visit the village on May 5.

The village head of Bilge, Hamit Celebi, and 10 family members were among the dead, Anatolian said.

Ambulances rushed the injured to Mardin, the main city in the area, and local residents were called to the hospital to donate blood.

Deadly Feuds

Local rivalry spilling into deadly feuds are not unheard of in southeast Turkey, although it is rare for the death toll to be so high. The scale of the latest attack would be of deep concern to the government, which is attempting to defuse tensions in the southeast born of separatist conflict.

The Turkish newspaper "Hurriyet" said on its website that the attack took place in mid-evening and that four unidentified gunmen had been involved in the attack and then escaped.

There are some 57,000 state-sponsored village guards 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 rugged 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, while critics say they use their status to settle family scores and take land.

The separatist PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. Some 40,000 people have been killed in conflict.

The PKK has been significantly weakened over the past two years by a military offensive inside Turkey and across in northern Iraq. The military suffered a setback last month when the PKK attacked a military convoy, killing nine soldiers.

Security in the southeast is seen as key to improving stability in Turkey and reducing tensions with northern Iraq.