Armenia marks emotional centenary of Ottoman massacres

24th April 2015, Comments 0 comments

The leaders of France and Russia on Friday joined ceremonies marking the centenary of the massacre of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces, a hugely emotional event that remains a diplomatic minefield.

During a commemoration at a hilltop memorial in the Armenian capital Yerevan, French President Francois Hollande urged modern day Turkey to end its refusal to recognise the massacre as genocide, saying he bowed in memory of the victims.

"Important words have already been said in Turkey, but others are still expected, so that shared grief can become shared destiny," Hollande told an audience that also included the leaders of Cyprus and Serbia and delegates from some 60 countries.

President Vladimir Putin for his part said Russia was standing shoulder to shoulder with ex-Soviet Armenia, one of Moscow's closest allies.

"There is no and cannot be justification for mass murder of people," said Putin, noting that Moscow was party to a convention against genocide.

Putin's remarks drew ire from Turkey whose foreign ministry condemned his remarks.

The Russian leader also used the commemorations to call on France to restore ties after a year of tensions over Ukraine, signalling his apparent desire to break out of international isolation.

"I believe that we have to look for ways to restore our ties and I believe that it's in everyone's interest."

Earlier in the day the leaders, walking in the rain, laid flowers at a memorial commemorating the victims.

Each put a yellow rose at the centre of a wreath resembling a forget-me-not, a flower that has become a symbol of the genocide remembrance.

"I am grateful to all those who are here to once again confirm your commitment to human values, to say that nothing is forgotten, that after 100 years we remember," Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian told his guests.

But the patchy list of foreign dignitaries attending the commemorations highlighted a lack of international consensus over Armenia's bid to get the massacres recognised internationally as a genocide.

More than 20 nations -- including France and Russia but not the United States -- have so far recognised the genocide, a definition supported by numerous historians, but vehemently opposed by Turkey.

Germany became the latest country to recognise the genocide, with President Joachim Gauck saying Thursday that his country, then an ally of the Ottomans, bore partial blame for the bloodletting.

But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said later he would not use the controversial term, telling news weekly Der Spiegel that "complex memories can seldom be reduced to a label."

-'Watershed moment'-

Muslim Turkey, which was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, has refused to call the slaughter of Christian Armenians genocide.

Ankara concedes that up to 500,000 people were killed, but says this was mostly due to fighting and starvation during World War I, when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian troops.

On Friday, Turkey hosted leaders from the former Allied powers of World War I to pay tribute to the tens of thousands killed in the Battle of Gallipoli, drawing accusations from Armenians that the event had been scheduled deliberately to overshadow the Yerevan ceremonies.

But in a first for a Turkish government official, European affairs minister Volkan Bozkir attended a Mass at an Armenian church in Istanbul to mark the 1915 massacres, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his "condolences" to the victims' descendants.

"Our hearts remain wide open to the grandchildren of the Ottoman Armenians all around the world," Erdogan said in a message.

Some 100 people staged a rally in Istanbul, demanding that the government recognise the genocide.

In Yerevan, hundreds of thousands joined a procession to the genocide memorial -- the country's most visited landmark -- carrying candles and flowers to lay at the eternal flame.

"I hope that the centenary will be a watershed moment in the Armenians' struggle for the recognition of the genocide," said Ani Sahakyan, 37, a Yerevan resident.

"We demand that Turkey recognise its guilt and make an apology," said Sevan Gedelekian, an ethnic Armenian from Lebanon.

The Armenian Church on Thursday conferred sainthood on the genocide victims in what was believed to be the biggest canonisation service in history.

- Commemorations and controversy-

From New York to Paris to Beirut, members of the massive Armenian diaspora that came into existence as a result of the slaughter that went on until 1917 were also to commemorate the anniversary.v

About 500 people gathered for a Mass in the Armenian Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem, while another 200 people held a rally near the Turkish consulate in East Jerusalem.

In Tehran, over 1,000 people protested outside the Turkish embassy, holding placards that read "Recognise Armenian genocide" and "Turkey don't deny."

Ahead of the anniversary, Turkey kicked up a diplomatic storm, condemning growing "racism" in Europe.

Ankara this week recalled its ambassador to Vienna in response to Austrian lawmakers' decision to use the word "genocide."

US President Barack Obama on Thursday went only so far as to describe the massacres as "terrible carnage".

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© 2015 AFP

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