Armenians mark mass killings amid fresh tensions with Turkey

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Tens of thousands of Armenians on Saturday marked the 95th anniversary of mass killings under the Ottoman Empire amid fresh tensions with Turkey over the collapse of reconciliation efforts.

Despite the political tensions, this year also saw the anniversary marked for the first time in Turkey, where human rights activists and artists in Istanbul broke with taboo and commemorated the massacres.

Under grey skies in the Armenian capital Yerevan, a steady stream of people marched from early morning to lay flowers at a hilltop memorial to the massacres, which Armenians insist constituted genocide.

Turkey fiercely rejects the genocide label and the dispute has poisoned relations between the two neighbours for decades.

Unprecedented reconciliation efforts begun last year fell apart just before the anniversary, when Armenia announced it was halting ratification of agreements normalising ties.

President Serzh Sarkisian, who attended a solemn ceremony at the memorial with the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Karekin II, said in a statement that international recognition that the killings constituted genocide was inevitable.

"We thank all of those who in many countries of the world, including in Turkey, understand the importance of preventing crimes against humanity and who stand with us in this struggle. This process has an inevitable momentum which has no alternative," he said.

In Istanbul, the local branch of the IHD human rights association organised a rally attended by about 100 people on the steps of the Haydarpasa train station, from where the first convoy of Armenians were deported on April 24, 1915 after being rounded up by authorities.

Under the slogan "Never Again", demonstrators carried black and white photos of some of the deportees as police kept at bay a group of counter-demonstrators.

Another demonstration was to be held later in Taksim square, the heart of modern Istanbul.

Turkish intellectuals and artists signed a petition calling on "those who feel the great pain" to show their sorrow. Avoiding an open confrontation over the term genocide, the petition speaks of the "Great Catastrophe" of the massacres.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese-Armenians also took to the streets of Beirut in a peaceful demonstration.

"Our demands today are the same as they have been for the past 95 years: international and Turkish acknowledgment of the genocide," Lebanese-Armenian State Minister Jean Ogassapian told AFP.

Amid tight security, demonstrators including lawmakers of Armenian origin blocked a main highway into Beirut, waving Armenian flags and carrying banners.

In Paris several thousand people urged Turkey to recognise the genocide at a rally at the foot of the statue of Armenian priest and composer Komitas.

"This is an important moment for us, to remember our parents and grand-parents," said 73-year-old Arsene Kalaidjian with tears in his eyes, telling AFP that his "father was nine when he was deported".

In Brussels hundreds of Armenians and their supporters marched between the Turkish embassy and the EU headquarters shouting "justice for the Armenian people".

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kin were systematically killed between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, was falling apart.

Turkey categorically rejects the genocide label and 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.

Armenia and Turkey signed a landmark deal in October to establish diplomatic ties and reopen their border.

But ratification of the deal faltered amid mutual recriminations that the other side was not committed to reconciliation and Armenia on Thursday announced it was removing the agreement from its parliament's agenda.

Yerevan blamed Ankara for stalling ratification and linking the agreement with Armenia's conflict with Turkish ally Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region.

The governments or parliaments of many countries, including France and Canada, have recognised the massacres as genocide and Armenians will be watching Saturday for US President Barack Obama's traditional statement on the killings.

Last year Obama avoided using the politically charged term "genocide" in a move analysts said was aimed at not endangering the reconciliation efforts.

© 2010 AFP

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