Sarkozy draws Turkish ire during Caucasus tour

7th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

French President Nicolas Sarkozy sparked Turkey's ire on Friday as he pushed for peace in the Caucasus during a tour that will see him check on a tense truce he brokered between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

Pressing an explosive issue that featured in his previous presidential campaign, Sarkozy told Turkey to recognise the World War I-era massacres of Armenians as genocide before the end of his term in office next year.

"From 1915 to 2011, it seems to be enough (time) for reflection," Sarkozy told reporters in Armenian capital Yerevan before travelling on to Baku and Azerbaijan and then Tbilisi.

Turkey responded angrily.

"It would be better... if Monsieur Sarkozy abandons the role of historian and puts his mind to getting his country out of the economic gulf in which it finds itself," said Turkey's European Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis.

Sarkozy has worked hard to raise France's diplomatic stature during a presidency that saw him travel to Georgia to broker a peace deal and halt a Russian advance.

The deal underscored his privileged ties with Russia, and Sarkozy has since also lent his name to efforts to stike better ties between border rival Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In the Armenian capital, Sarkozy said that "the time has come to find the path of lasting peace" between neighbours, citing the example of France and Germany after World War II.

Armenia and Turkey have gone through decades of hostility over the Ottoman empire massacre, with Ankara basing its diplomatic relations with some nations on their stance on the issue.

But Sarkozy warned that if Turkey did not make a "gesture of peace" and "step towards reconciliation", he would consider proposing the adoption of a law criminalising denial of the killings as genocide.

Armenians say that up to 1.5 million of their kin fell victim to genocide, but Turkey counters that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife.

Sarkozy previously angered Ankara ahead of his election in 2007 by backing a law aimed at prosecuting those who refused to recognise the massacres as genocide.

The French lower house of parliament later rejected the measure, infuriating the Armenian diaspora in France estimated at around 500,000 people.

Before his visit, Sarkozy further indicated an ambition to bring Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan forward in the stalled peace process over Nagorny Karabakh, the focus of a bitter unresolved conflict which erupted into war in the 1990s, leaving some 30,000 dead.

On the eve of his arrival, the French leader urged the two rivals to "take the risk of peace".

At a joint news conference in Yerevan, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian responded by saying that he appreciated France's efforts to establish "a durable peace".

"President Sarkozy's personal involvement in this process is particularly important to us," Sarkisian said.

But two Azerbaijani soldiers and one Armenian serviceman were reported to have been killed on the frontline the day before Sarkozy arrived -- a sign of continuing tensions over Karabakh, which Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized from Azerbaijan during the war.

After leaving Azerbaijan, Sarkozy is due to conclude his three-nation Caucasus tour in Tbilisi, where he is expected to check on the tense truce that he brokered to end the war between Russia and Georgia.

© 2011 AFP

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