Turkish wedding carnage raises questions on village guards

9th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

In an attack that caused a national outcry, 44 people, half of them women and children, were killed by machine gun-toting assailants during the ceremony last week in the village of Bilge in Mardin province, close to the Syrian border.

Bilge -- A wedding party massacre in Turkey's Kurdish southeast has put a spotlight on a paramilitary force that critics say abuses its mandate of fighting separatist rebels and should be dismantled.

In an attack that caused a national outcry, 44 people, half of them women and children, were killed by machine gun-toting assailants during the ceremony last week in the village of Bilge in Mardin province, close to the Syrian border.

Eight people, among them a 14-year-old, were charged by a court and security forces were questioning two other suspects as they try to shed light on the motive behind the carnage, which witnesses blamed on a clan feud.

Locals have said the suspected attackers were "village guards," a militia force of Kurds armed and paid by the government to help combat the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish self-rule since 1984.

The force, whose number swelled up to 90,000 at the peak of the PKK's campaign in the 1990s, consists of some 70,000 people today, according to the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD).

The guards have proved successful with their knowledge of the rugged mountains where PKK militants hide and have participated in security operations both inside Turkey and in cross-border raids in neighbouring northern Iraq.

But they also quickly became the subject of widespread criticism as thousands of them, with their right to carry arms and kill in the name of the state, were implicated in serious crimes.

Human rights associations in Turkey and abroad have long called for the dissolution of the force on the grounds that they use their fire power and status to settle family scores and take over land.

"Do the weapons used (in Monday's massacre) belong to the state?" asked Emine Ayna, a lawmaker from the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the country's main Kurdish party, in a news conference.

"The (village guards) must be immediately dismantled," she added.

According to official statistics, some 5,100 village guards have been linked to various crimes such as drug smuggling, rapes, kidnappings, and murders between 1985 and 2002. Of the 850 who were charged, only 264 were convicted.

In a written statement Wednesday, the IHD accused the Turkish state of giving the guards preferential treatment and said their unlawful acts far surpassed the official numbers.

In a report compiled from witness testimonies and press reports between 1990 and 2002, the association said the guards were responsible for some 1,000 cases of torching or forcibly evacuating villages, rape, kidnappings, armed attacks, extrajudicial killings, torture and maltreatment.

A total of 132 people were killed and another 176 were wounded by the militias during that period, it said.

The motivation for the Bilge carnage remains unclear but officials have linked it to a clan feud, an assessment that the IHD categorically refuted.

"It would be erroneous to link this painful event to feudal traditions and ignore the village guards who for years have terrorised this region," it said.

The guards are almost untouchable since they protect Turkey's interests against what the state calls the "terrorist" attacks of the PKK, but for human right defenders and many locals, they are warlords serving their own interests.

"There have been many problems with village guards here in Mardin, but investigations against them have generally been swept under the rug by authorities," said a young man in Mardin who did not give his name for fear of reprisals.

"This system should not exist anymore," Sevket Soke, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party, told AFP, calling on the government to "carve out the abscess" once and for all.

"These people maintain archaic traditions. It is really a plague for Turkey," he said.

AFP/Expatica

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