Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Tuesday, 5 May 2009 13:11 UK

Village Guards in spotlight after attack

Men bury those killed in Bilge Koyu (5 May 2009)
Bilge Koyu is preparing to bury its dead

By David O'Byrne
BBC News, Istanbul

Under normal circumstances the wedding of the daughter of a village official in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish south-east would be cause for much celebration.

Instead, in the tiny village of Bilge Koyu in Mardin province, bulldozers are now breaking ground on a mass grave for 44 guests - all killed in a frenzied attack by masked assailants bearing automatic weapons and grenades.

Those confirmed dead include the bride's father, the bridegroom, 16 female relatives and six small children.

While family feuds do often result in bloodshed, events on the scale witnessed in Bilge Koyu are unprecedented

Another six guests are fighting for their lives in local hospitals, including a three-year-old girl given emergency surgery to remove a bullet from her chest.

The motive for the attack is still unclear, but officials believe it stems from a blood feud between two families in the village.

Family feuds are common among the patchwork of ethnic and religious groups which make up Turkey's predominantly Kurdish south-eastern provinces.

There, loyalties to extended family and tribal groups are often far stronger than to the rule of law.

But while such feuds do sometimes result in bloodshed, events on the scale witnessed in Bilge Koyu are unprecedented.

Settling scores

With Turkey continuing its efforts to join the EU, the killings have served as a reminder that parts of the underdeveloped east have still to feel the benefits of the prosperity that has transformed the industrialised west.

Women mourn those killed in Bilge Koyu (5 May 2009)
Locals say there has been a feud between two families in the village

The eight men arrested after the killings have yet to be identified, but the fact that arrests were made within hours of the attack and that the men were persuaded to surrender without further bloodshed points to their being both local residents and not militants.

Rather, reports indicate that those arrested are members of a legal paramilitary group, the so-called Village Guards, created and armed by the government.

Set up in the mid-1980s as a means of arming, training and paying villagers opposed to the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Village Guards proved successful in combating insurgents.

They also helped the Turkish military impose the martial law under which much of the region lived until five years ago.

However, at the same time, members of the Village Guards themselves quickly became the subjects of widespread criticism.

Reports by both Turkish officials and international human rights groups have long alleged that Village Guard members have been just as effective at settling long-running family scores, and expropriating land belonging to rivals, forcing them to flee.

Map of Turkey

There are even accusations that members have been involved in extra-judicial killings and drug smuggling over Turkey's porous borders with Iraq and Iran.

Despite the lifting of martial law and continuing criticism of the legality of many of their activities, the Village Guards are still thought to have between 50,000 to 90,000 members across the south-east.

And while Bilge Koyu prepares itself for the grim task of burying its dead, many are already questioning whether something good may come from such a tragic event.

It might be that the Turkish authorities will be forced to question the necessity of maintaining a militia - especially one so widely criticised.

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