BILGE, Turkey – A Turkish court charged at least eight people including government-linked village guards in the killing of 44 people at an engagement ceremony in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, the interior minister said Wednesday.
The Monday night attack — in which masked assailants gunned down the betrothed couple, the Islamic cleric and many guests — was the result of a family feud, authorities said.
Weapons used in the attack belonged to the Bilge village's guards, who are paid and armed by the state to fight alongside troops against rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said.
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"It is a disappointing factor that village guards are involved," Atalay said. "There are village guards both among the dead and the suspects, and the weapons belong to village guards."
Turkey has said its 70,000 or so village guards have protected remote villages and guided troops over a rugged terrain. But it has struggled over how to trim the force without releasing masses of trained fighters onto the streets of Turkey's southeast, where unemployment in some areas reaches 50 percent.
A court on Wednesday charged eight suspects for their alleged involvement in the attack, authorities said. Private CNN-Turk television said two more suspects were charged later, but authorities did not immediately confirm that. The state-run Anatolia news agency reported the total number of suspects charged at 12, but there was no immediate way to reconcile the differing accounts.
Authorities have said some of the suspects were related to the victims, and that the attack turned many children into orphans.
"Thirty-one children lost both their mothers and fathers in the attack," Fevzi Hamidi, a social service official, told private NTV television. "There are several others who lost either their mother or father." Hamidi said the government would offer counseling to the survivors.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the attack was the "result of a feud between two families."
Eight families with links to the suspects fled the village with their belongings on Wednesday, saying they had received death threats from victims' relatives, according to NTV. Earlier, soldiers had prevented a group of mourning women from attacking their houses, Anatolia said.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said the suspects in custody had given conflicting accounts of the incident.
The village — in the impoverished Mardin province, near the border with Syria — is steeped in tradition, and clans have engaged in violence in the past to defend what they view as family honor. The rural area has also endured years of fighting between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish rebels, who are seeking more autonomy.
Mourners in Bilge, including women in long dresses and headscarves, sat crying and wailing beside the graves of slain relatives on Wednesday. One held a man's photograph close to her chest.
Journalists were allowed Wednesday to visit the house where the attack took place, and found walls riddled with bullet holes and all the windows shattered. Authorities had apparently removed bloodstained carpets, revealing bare, concrete floors.
One 12-year-old said his mother was among those killed at the ceremony, during which he had stayed home with the rest of his family, according to Anatolia. He said they went to the house after hearing gunfire.
"There was blood everywhere," Siddik Celebi was quoted as saying. "My father and villagers put everyone into cars. They took them to hospital. Then the bad news arrived. I heard that my mother had died. Besides my mother, I lost two uncles from my father's side and two uncles from my mothers' side."