TURKISH PRESIDENT TO STAGE HISTORIC VISIT TO ARMENIA

Agence France Presse
Sept 3 2008

ANKARA (AFP) -- President Abdullah Gul will on Saturday become
the first Turkish head of state to visit Armenia, his office said,
fuelling hopes of easing almost a century of hostility over massacres
by Turkish Ottoman empire forces.

Gul will go to Yerevan to attend a football match between the two
countries, which do not have diplomatic relations and have spent
decades at loggerheads over Armenia's attempts to get the massacres
classified as "genocide."

Armenia's President Serge Sarkisian invited Gul last month to attend
the qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup finals. Turkish diplomats
and security officials have been in Yerevan this week making final
preparations.

"A visit around this match can create a new climate of friendship
in the region," the Turkish presidency said in a statement posted on
its website. "It's with this in mind that the president has accepted
the invitation.

"This match could lift the obstacles blocking the coming together
of two peoples who share a common history and can create a new
foundation," it said.

The Turkish presidency said it hoped the visit means "an opportunity
for a better mutual understanding."

The trip, which comes amid heightened tensions in the Caucasus region
following the conflict last month between Georgia and Russia, will
only last a few hours, a Turkish diplomatic source said.

Sarkisian earlier welcomed a Turkish proposal for a new forum in
the volatile Caucasus region after meeting a senior Turkish envoy to
prepare the visit.

"Armenia has always welcomed and welcomes all efforts directed at
the strengthening of confidence, stability and security, and at
deepening cooperation in the region," Sarkisian said in a statement
after meeting Gul's special envoy Unal Cevikoz.

He added that Cevikoz's visit "raises the possibility of talks to
settle mutual relations" between the two countries.

Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia
since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The key
reason is Yerevan's campaign for the deaths of Armenian civilians in
1915-1917 to be classified as genocide.

Armenia says up to 1.5 million people were killed in orchestrated
massacres during World War I as the Ottoman Empire fell apart before
being dismantled in 1920.

Turkey rejects the genocide label and argues that 250,000-500,000
Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife as Armenians
fought for independence in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading
Russian troops.

About 20 countries have recognised the events as genocide. The European
parliament recognised the "genocide" in 1987 and France in 2001 became
the first major European nation to publicly recognise the Armenian
genocide but did not explicity blame the Turks.

In 2005, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a tentative
first step towards resolving the thorny genocide issue by mooting
that a joint commission of historians launch an investigation and
publish their conclusions.

The proposal was rejected by Yerevan.

A Turkish diplomatic source said Gul's visit would last only a few
hours and expectations that he would announce his agreement were not
welcomed by opposition deputies and nationalist militants in Turkey.

"I would have preferred to go to Baku for a match and not to Yerevan,"
said opposition chief Deniz Baykal, referring to Turkey's traditionally
warm ties with Azerbaijan.

In 1993, Ankara closed its border with Armenia over Nagorny
Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region in Azerbaijan which proclaimed
independence.

Backed by Armenia, ethnic Armenian forces took control of the
mountainous territory during a war in the early 1990s that left nearly
30,000 dead and sparked an exodus of around one million.