ANKARA, Turkey (AP) - Masked assailants with grenades and automatic weapons attacked an engagement ceremony in southeast Turkey on Monday, killing 45 people. Two girls survived after the bodies of slain friends fell on top of them during the onslaught.
NTV television quoted Deputy Gov. Ferhat Ozen of Mardin province as saying the nighttime attack occurred in Bilge village near the city of Mardin. Some media outlets reported that a "blood feud" among families had led to the killings in a region where tribal ties and rivalries sometimes eclipse the power of the state.
Citing Ozen, NTV said the motive could be an old feud between rival groups of pro-government village guards who fight alongside Turkish troops against Kurdish rebels in the region. If that is the case, the government would come under renewed pressure to rein in the militiamen, some of whom have been linked to drug smuggling and other crimes.
Mehmet Besir Ayanoglu, the mayor of Mardin, told Turkey's Channel 24 that he spoke to two survivors, both girls, who said at least two masked men stormed a house where the ceremony took place. Other reports put the number of assailants at four.
"'They raided the house, we were in two rooms, they opened fire on everyone, they were wearing masks,"' Ayanoglu quoted the girls as saying. The girls said they lay underneath the bodies of friends until the attack was over.
Interior Minister Besir Atalay said 45 people were killed and six were wounded, and ruled out involvement of Kurdish rebels. He said he, along with the justice and agriculture ministers, would travel to the village early Tuesday.
Anatolia news agency said the attack lasted 15 minutes. All initial reports said the assault happened during a wedding, though CNN-Turk television later said it took place during an engagement ceremony.
One survivor, a 19-year-old woman, said the assailants ordered people to huddle in one room and opened fire, NTV reported. Another report said the attack occurred when people were praying at the house. Some guards responded to the attack but the assailants fled, NTV said.
Ahmet Can, a relative who took the body of his nephew to a hospital, said the site of the attack was horrifying.
"You could not believe your eyes, it is unbelievable," he told Channel 24.
The attack occurred during the ceremony for the daughter of Cemil Celebi, a former village official who was among the wounded.
An Islamic cleric who was presiding over the marriage died at a hospital, NTV said. The fate of the bride and groom was not immediately known. The attack killed an entire family, including the parents and their six children, aged between three and 12.
Ambulances took at least 17 bodies to the morgue of a hospital in Mardin, said Aytac Akgul, a local official. Hundreds of relatives of the victims gathered there, wailing. Several people offered to donate blood.
State television said soldiers surrounded the village and cut off all roads leading to it. It said there was no power there, and the village could not be reached by telephone. Journalists were barred from traveling to Bilge.
For years, 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. The system is one of the few lucrative sources of employment in the region.
The military has purged thousands of village guards suspected of favoring Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy in the southeast. Several hundred guards have also faced criminal charges that include drug and weapons smuggling.
Many rebels and guardsmen are from the same villages or clans. Most guardsmen are poor villagers, and local residents and activists say some were forced to join against their will. Others were signed up by politically powerful clan leaders allied with the state.
The conflict between Kurdish guerrillas and government forces has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.