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Diggers grind as Turkey buries massacre victims

Published on 09/05/2009

Bilge — Mechanical diggers gorged out rows of tombs Tuesday outside the village where 44 people at a wedding party in Kurdish Turkey were mown down in a machine-gun orgy unleashed by a clan vendetta.

"Even the PKK wouldn’t have done that," sighed Ahmet of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party and its bloody campaign against Ankara.

Ahmet, from neighbouring Atlica, lost his big sister in the massacre, just one among the 17 women, six children and 21 men — including the bride and the groom — to perish in the shocking blood feud between rival families rooted to Middle Ages concepts of honour.

By a small road leading to the village — home to just a few hundred inhabitants near Turkey’s Syrian border — two mechanical diggers were gouging out the graves from a plot of land protected by about 40 armed police guards.

A couple of hundred locals wept and prayed under the leadership of an imam as the two first bodies were lowered into their freshly-cut tombs and ambulance vans arrived bringing more from the hospital morgue after forensic examinations in the closest main town of Mardin.

To one side, crouching women cried tears and Kurdish prayers in a ghostly relay.

Four masked men burst into the village square from different directions late Monday, just after a Muslim preacher had completed the wedding ceremony, and opened fire on the crowd, witnesses told AFP.

One survivor said the attackers herded women — three of the victims were pregnant — and children into a room and sprayed them with bullets.

The assailants escaped in the dark as a sandstorm cut visibility.

"My cousin, Neriman Celebi, is dead," said a man from the next village three kilometres (two miles) away.

"I heard gunshots in the night and I called the police," he added.

"But with the sandstorm, we didn’t hear the start of the shooting."

Eight men from the village in the southeastern province of Mardin were detained but the barbarity of the killings sent shockwaves across Turkey and far beyond.

"Pointing guns at children, slaying defenceless and innocent people is inhumane… it’s beyond words," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Ankara.

Blood feuds are frequent in Turkey’s Kurdish-populated regions, where medieval traditions persist, illiteracy is high and many see the gun as a legitimate tool to settle scores.

Many men in Bilge were members of the village guard, including the suspected attackers, locals said.

Critics have long urged the abolition of the militia, arguing that it has stoked the restive region’s crime rate.

"In 1998, there was a similar incident in the region," recalled local official Yilmaz Altes.

"This is a sensitive zone, the wedding should have been conducted under proper security," he added, urging the government to be "far more vigilant".

Competing theories were circulating as to the exact origins of the feud, but hostilities are often triggered by land disputes, unpaid debts, abductions or girls eloping with someone from a rival clan.