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Turkey Massacre Raises Questions About Blood Feuds, Arming Civilians

A wounded woman is taken to the hospital in Diyarbakir early on May 5.
A wounded woman is taken to the hospital in Diyarbakir early on May 5.
Turkey says there are no signs that the killing of at least 44 people at a wedding ceremony in southeastern Turkey was a terrorist attack.

Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay says the attack on May 4 appears to be the result of a blood feud between two families and not the work of Kurdish separatists.

Now, authorities have arrested eight suspects in the case. And the arrests seem to confirm that the massacre is the culmination of long-standing animosities between two families in the village where the massacre occurred.

"It seems like a feud between two families. One family wanted this girl to marry this guy [from their side] and the girl's family did not permit that and tried to marry her off to another family and the first family staged this attack," says Nejat Basar, news editor of Turkey's "Hurriyet Daily News."

In the attack in the village of Bilge, in the province of Mardin near the Syrian border, masked gunmen opened fire on some 200 guests attending a local wedding ceremony. Witnesses say the shooting lasted 15 minutes before the attackers fled.

By the latest count, 44 of the guests are dead, including six children and 16 women. The bride and groom were both reportedly killed.

The scale of the massacre has shocked Turkey, a country where rivalries between families in remote rural areas are not unknown. But squabbles over property or marriage rarely turn this violent.

Basar says that while this attack "was the latest in a history of antagonism and clashes between these two families," he says that "this is something totally new in Turkey, blood feuds are not, but such a massacre on a large scale in a small village is totally unprecedented."

Authorities say all involved appear to be members of the same village and some of the suspects taken into custody have the same surnames as the victims.

Force For Stability?

But if the affair seems purely local, the fact that all the men in the village of Bilge are also members of a paramilitary force gives the matter greater significance than simply a particularly gruesome crime.

Turkey's NTV television quoted Mardin Deputy Governor Ahmet Ferhat Ozen as saying that the motive could have been an old feud between rival groups of the pro-government militia, the Village Guards.

Graves being dug outside the village of Bilge
The Village Guards are a force of some 60,000 local Kurds armed by Ankara to protect villages in southeastern Turkey against attacks by the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

But if the guards were established in 1985 to be a stabilizing force, some of its members are occasionally in the news for activities that have the opposite effect.

The militia's mandate to carry arms, inform on suspected separatist activities, patrol the rugged mountainous region, and fight separatists alongside Turkish troops has made them a force in their own right that is able to advance members' own interests.

Village Guards members in the past have been accused of using their status to carry out attacks on rival clans, seize land, and engage in smuggling.

"I have heard before of incidents where Village Guards have moved with their families into villages that were evacuated in the 1990s and now the original villagers are returning to their villages they find the Village Guards already are living there," Basar says.

"And southeast Anatolia is a major smuggling route and it is no surprise that these Village Guards are involved in it because many people in the region are involved in it anyway," he adds.

All this makes the Village Guards controversial even as Ankara continues to depend upon the militia to stabilize the volatile southeast.

Iraqi Safe Haven

Yet controversial as the guards are, there are few signs that the force will be disbanded anytime soon.

Turkey has targeted Kurdish PKK fighters on the Iraqi side of their mountainous border.
Separatist violence in the southeast subsided following Turkey's arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. But it has picked up again following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Basar says that since 2004, the PKK's use of safe havens in northern Iraq to launch attacks inside Turkey has become a major concern. He says that "the security situation is far from improved."

Turkey and Iraq recently struck a deal to deprive the PKK of its bases in northern Iraq but the rugged nature of the terrain works against quick fixes.

In the meantime, southeastern Turkey has to live with an uneasy and volatile mix.

Blood feuds are not uncommon in the region and often center on questions of land, marriage, and unpaid debts. Paramilitary abuse of power and involvement in smuggling are also allegedly not uncommon.

In remote rural areas, all of these questions can easily merge together. And, with arms abundant, those are all the ingredients one needs to get stunning acts of private revenge.

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