Armenians mark anniversary of Ottoman-era mass killings
Under sunny skies, thousands of Armenians gathered to commemorate the killings that began in 1915 and led to a mass exodus of Armenians from what is now eastern Turkey.Yerevan -- Armenians on Friday marked the 94th anniversary of mass killings of their kin under the Ottoman Empire amid signs that decades-old tensions with Turkey may be easing.
Under sunny skies thousands of people carrying wreathes and flowers climbed to a hilltop memorial in Yerevan to commemorate the killings that began in 1915 and led to a mass exodus of Armenians from what is now eastern Turkey.
Armenians insist the killings constituted genocide and the issue remains a major stumbling block in relations with Turkey, which strongly rejects the label.
But this year's commemorations came as Armenia and Turkey -- nudged by the United States -- have been edging towards reconciliation. The two sides this week announced a "road map" for talks that could eventually lead to the normalising of ties and the opening of their border.
President Serzh Sarkisian, who was joined at the ceremonies by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Karekin II, said in a statement that Yerevan would continue to push for international recognition of the killings as genocide.
"Crimes against humanity do not have an expiration date, neither in the memories of the people nor in history ... The international recognition and condemnation of the Armenian genocide is a matter of reinstating historic justice," he said.
But he also reached out to Turkey, saying questions of history need not affect current ties.
"The process of recognition of the Armenian genocide is not directed against the Turkish people, and recognition of the genocide by Turkey is not a precondition for the establishment of bilateral relations," Sarkisian said.
Many of those taking part in Friday's procession said Armenia should not establish ties with Turkey until the country recognises the killings as genocide.
"How can we establish friendly relations when every year on this day we on this side of the border remember the genocide with the great pain of injustice in our hearts, while on the other side of the border Turkey denies this?" asked Arpi Glechian, a 72-year-old pensioner.
But analysts say many in Armenia support establishing links with Turkey, in hopes of ending the country's long economic isolation.
Many countries, including France and Canada, have recognised the massacres as genocide and US President Barack Obama is under pressure to make good on a pledge to follow their lead.
Many here hoped that Obama would use the occasion of Friday's anniversary to honour his election promise to use the term genocide in an annual White House statement on the killings.
But analysts say that after the "road map" announcement it is unlikely Obama will endanger reconciliation efforts by using the politically charged label.
Obama avoided using the terminology during a visit to Turkey this month, instead calling for Armenia and Turkey to build on fence-mending efforts.
In Ankara, Turkish President Abdullah Gul suggested that he did not expect Obama to use the term.
Gul said that he and Obama had discussed the issue at length during the US president's visit and that Obama "is now better informed on all these questions."
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kin were systematically killed between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's predecessor, was falling apart.
In rejecting the genocide label, Turkey says between 300,000 and 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians took up arms in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading Russian troops.
In 1993, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in a show of solidarity with close ally Azerbaijan amid the war over Nagorny Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan that was fighting to break free of Baku's control.