BILGE, Turkey – Eight men suspected of gunning down 44 people during an engagement ceremony were arrested Tuesday, accused of killing the betrothed couple — whose wedding they opposed — along with relatives and friends in a 15-minute rampage.
Two girls survived by concealing themselves beneath the bodies of their slain friends during the shootings in Turkey's impoverished rural southeast, where tribal ties and rivalries can eclipse the power of the state.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the attack was "the result of a feud between two families."
Security forces backed by armored vehicles set up checkpoints on roads leading to Bilge, the village where the killings took place late Monday. Authorities also cut telephone communication with the hamlet.
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Anatolia news agency said the masked attackers had wanted the young woman, Sevgi Celebi, to marry one among their own group of friends or relatives but that her family would not allow it.
It cited unnamed villagers as saying there was a dispute between the attackers' family and the family of the would-be groom, and that Celebi's family had resisted pressure to cancel the marriage plans.
"No customs and mores can be used as an excuse for this massacre," Erdogan said. "This is the painful price we are paying for such customs and mores."
Among the dead, he said, were six children, 17 women and 21 men. He said some suspects had the same family name as the victims.
"The people were killed at a happy event, during a ceremony, while praying," Erdogan said in his weekly address to ruling party lawmakers in parliament. "The fact that they pointed guns and massacred children, defenseless people, is atrocious."
Reports said the gunmen opened fire as men and women prayed in separate rooms in line with tradition in parts of Turkey.
One teenage girl said she lost six members of her family. "I heard the shooting and I hid in the barn because I was afraid. I was really afraid," the girl said on television footage released by Turkey's Dogan news agency.
On Tuesday morning, four large earth-movers dug graves for victims in the village cemetery. Residents carried gravestones and two dozen seated women wept beside a tree, slapping their legs in grief. Men silently watched from a hilltop nearby as soldiers patrolled.
Interior Minister Besir Atalay said eight suspects were in custody.
"They were caught with their weapons," he said.
Abdullah Akan was one of the first villagers who entered the house where the shooting occurred during praying.
"There were bodies everywhere when I entered the house. The imam in the front and the men lined up behind him, all were dead," daily Hurriyet's Web site quoted Akan as saying. "Women and children were in a separate room, the inside was a bloodbath. I have not seen such savagery in my life."
Opposition lawmaker Canan Aritman urged the government to take steps toward eradicating the tribal system, though she did not elaborate.
"It is something that doesn't exist even in the most primitive societies," said Aritman, member of a parliamentary panel investigating so-called "honor killings" within traditional families.
Mehmet Besir Ayanoglu, the mayor of Mardin, told 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.
Bedia Akbulut, a teacher living in the village, told Anatolia her husband turned out the lights when they first heard shots fired.
"Then there was silence and we went out. Everyone in the village was in great fear," she said. "We can't believe what we went through."