BILGE, Turkey - Masked men armed with assault rifles and grenades killed 44 people at a wedding party in southeast Turkey in a blood feud between families over who should marry the bride, authorities and residents said.

The bride and her groom were killed in Monday evening's attack in Bilge, a village of a few hundred people in the conservative heartland of mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.

Eight people have been caught and detained, and their weapons confiscated. This can be understood as a blood feud between two families, Interior Minister Besir Atalay told a news conference.

The suspected gunmen and many of the victims bore the same family name, Atalay said. The Celebi family had been at odds with each other over land, membership of state-sponsored village guards, and more recently over the bride, local residents said.

The attack was sparked by revenge from one part of the Celebi family, unhappy a son had been passed over for a groom from another family in Diyarbakir, residents told Reuters.

State news agency Anatolian quoted witnesses as saying up to six attackers stormed two houses where guests had gathered for prayers after the wedding. Sevgi Celebi, the daughter of the village chief, called a muhtar, was being married when the attack occurred. The groom was named Habip Ari.

They broke into the house and started spraying the place with bullets, hitting both men and women, their faces were covered with masks, said a 20-year-old female eyewitness, who declined to be named.

A high-school student survived because the body of his slain brother fell on top of him.

A Reuters reporter who visited the house where 44 had been killed, including 16 women and six children, said he saw two rooms splattered with blood stains, women's scarves lying on the ground and bullet holes in the walls.

The attack was one of the worst involving civilians in the modern history of European Union candidate Turkey.

They ruined us all. I want them to get the biggest punishment possible. I wish fire in the houses of those who put fire in my house, Sultan Celebi, 75, who lost four children, three daughters-in-laws and one grandchild, told Anatolian.


Marriages in the conservative southeast, where it is usual to carry weapons, can spark rivalry between clans because the groom and his family must often pay some kind of prize to the bride's family for marriage, and sometimes the highest bidder wins.

I am ashamed to be from here, this is brutality, it is like a natural disaster, an earthquake, Mahmut Yildiz, 43, told Reuters. Pointing to bulldozers shoveling earth for mass graves, he said: I don't know how we will be able to live in peace.

The government has improved the rights of women in the impoverished southeast but the EU says more needs to be done, including dealing with honor killings.

No kind of tradition can justify this killing, no conscience can justify this kind of pain, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in Ankara.

The scale of the latest attack will concern the government, which is attempting to defuse tensions in the southeast born of separatist conflict with PKK Kurdish guerrillas.

There have been calls to disarm village guards, who number around 57,000 throughout Turkey's southeast. They are part of a controversial policy established in 1985 to set up a paramilitary force to protect villages against PKK attacks, patrol the rugged mountains and help fight the separatists.

But their right to carry arms, to inform on suspected separatist activities and to kill in the name of the state has made them a force within the region, while critics say they use their status to settle family scores and take land.

The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, seeking an ethnic Kurdish homeland in the southeast. Some 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Security in the southeast is also regarded as key to improving stability in Turkey and reducing tensions with northern Iraq.