By Suzan Fraser

Associated Press Writer
31, 2009 07:33 PM

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) - Armenia and Turkey agreed Monday to establish
diplomatic relations, overcoming a seemingly intractable rift that
dates to the early 20th century and was marked by massacres of
Armenians under Ottoman rule.

The neighboring countries will be setting up and developing relations
for the first time, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Burak Ozugergin
said. It is unclear, however, if the talks will touch on the dispute
over the World War I-era killings.

The issue is a major stumbling block to Turkey's aspirations to
join the European Union and has strained ties with the United
States. Historians estimate that, in the last days of the Ottoman
Empire, up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in
what is widely regarded as the first genocide of the 20th Century.

Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, contending the
toll has been inflated and that the casualties were victims of civil
war. It says Turks also suffered losses in the hands of Armenian gangs.

Turkey and Armenia also disagree about Armenian forces' control
of the Arzerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is a close
ally of Azerbaijan and back Baku's claims to the region, which has
a high number of ethnic Armenian residents but is located within
Azerbaijan's borders.

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia's
independence in 1991, but the two countries never established
diplomatic relations and their joint border has been closed since 1993.

Ties began to improve after a so-called soccer diplomacy campaign
last year, when Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended a World Cup
qualifier in Armenia.

Armenia's President Serge Sarkisian has said he wants significant
progress on reopening their shared border before he will agree to
attend a World Cup qualifying match in Turkey on Oct. 14.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the upcoming talks, agreed to after
mediation by Switzerland, should last about six weeks.

Armenian political commentator Artyom Yerkanian, speaking during a
special TV broadcast, suggested the agreement to establish ties could
be signed at the October soccer match.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the announcement, saying
in a statement that "normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey
wouldconstitute an event of historic import that would contribute to
regional stability." Sarkozy opposes Turkey's entry into the EU.

Establishing ties with Armenia is important for Turkey - a country
that is playing an ever increasing role as a regional mediator and

Turkey has mediated indirect talks between Syria and Israel, and
hosted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as well as EU leaders
separately for talks on proposed pipeline projects to bring energy
supplies to the West.

Earlier Monday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Iraq and
Syria to try and defuse diplomatic tensions over Baghdad's demand that
Damascus extradite two suspects wanted in a recent suicide attacks
on government ministries.