SwissInfo, switzerland
April 23 2014

April 23, 2014 - 16:32

By Jonny Hogg

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan offered what
the government said were unprecedented condolences on Wednesday to the
grandchildren of Armenians killed in World War One by Ottoman soldiers.

In a statement issued on the eve of the 99th anniversary of the deeply
contested deaths, Erdogan unexpectedly described the events of 1915 as
"inhumane", using more conciliatory language than has often been the
case for Turkish leaders.

Turkish government officials said it was the first time a Turkish
prime minister had offered such explicit condolences and described
the statement as a historic step, but Erdogan's words were dismissed
as "cold-hearted and cynical" by an influential U.S.-based Armenian
advocacy group.

The exact nature and scale of what happened during fighting that
started in 1915 is highly contentious and continues to sour relations
between Turkey and Armenia, a former Soviet republic.

Turkey accepts that many Armenians died in clashes, but denies that up
to 1.5 million were killed and that this constituted an act of genocide
- a term used by many Western historians and foreign parliaments.

Earlier in April, for example, a U.S. Senate committee resolution
branded the massacre of Armenians as genocide.

Erdogan's statement - unusually released in nine different languages
including Armenian - repeated previous calls for dialogue between
the two countries, and the setting up of a historical commission to
probe events surrounding the killings.

"It is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who
lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in
peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren," he said.

"Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences - such as
relocation - during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and
Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes
among towards one another."


Although striking a conciliatory tone, Erdogan re-iterated a long-held
Turkish position that the deaths of millions of people during the
violence of the period should be remembered "without discriminating
as to religion or ethnicity".

Turkey is a Muslim state, while Armenia is Christian.

"Using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey
and turning this issue into a matter of political conflict is
inadmissible," he added.

Armenia has up to now declined the offer for a joint historical
commission, as it regards the alleged genocide as an established
historical fact and believes Turkey would use such a commission to
press its own version of events.

Armenia accuses the Ottoman authorities at the time of systematically
massacring large numbers of Armenians, then deporting many more,
including women, children and the elderly and infirm in terrible
conditions on so-called death marches.

The executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America
said that Turkey was increasingly isolated over its version of what
happened in 1915.

"Ankara is repackaging its genocide denials," Aram Hamparian said
in response to Erdogan's remarks. "The fact remains that, as this
cold-hearted and cynical ploy so plainly demonstrates, Turkey is,
today, escalating its denial of truth and obstruction of justice for
the Armenian Genocide."

No one from the Armenian government was immediately available to
comment. Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan is due to address the
nation on Thursday morning during an annual "genocide" day speech.

Last December, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made Turkey's
first high-level visit to Armenia in nearly five years, raising the
prospect of a revival in peace efforts between the historical rivals
which stalled in 2010.

Turkey cut ties and shut its border with Armenia in 1993 in support
of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan, which was then fighting a losing battle
against Armenian separatists in Karabakh. The frontier remains closed.

(Additional reporting by Hasmik Lazarian in Yerevan, Editing by
Crispian Balmer/Jeremy Gaunt)