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Turkey and Armenia draw up "road map" to mend ties
ANKARA/YEREVAN (Reuters) - Turkey and Armenia have agreed on a road map to normalize ties after nearly a century of hostility, a move quickly welcomed by the European Union and the United States, but which could upset oil-rich Azerbaijan.
The deal, weeks after President Barack Obama urged Turkey to resolve the issue, came on the eve of the commemoration of mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915. The two states since last year have held high-level talks to restore ties.
"The two parties have achieved tangible progress and mutual understanding in this process and they have agreed on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of their bilateral relations," the foreign ministries of Turkey and Armenia said.
The statement gave few clues on how Turkey and Armenia planned to tackle the sensitive dispute over the 1915 killings.
Turkish and Armenian government sources said the two sides had not signed any document, but had agreed in principle to move ahead in establishing normal relations, which would include reopening a border shut in 1993.
But a senior Western diplomat said the roadmap commits the neighbors to establishing diplomatic relations, opening their border gradually and establishing commissions to tackle historical disputes over "weeks or months".
"All the documents have been agreed in principle but it's from the signing that the clock starts ticking," the diplomat told Reuters. "It is a finite period that is not very long. We are talking about weeks or months."
Turkey accepts many Christian Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks but denies that up to 1.5 million died and that it amounted to genocide.
The years of stand-off have isolated impoverished Armenia and obstructed Turkey's efforts to join the European Union (EU).
"We welcome the progress in the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia," a joint statement by EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.
The move appeared to indicate Ankara is willing to sacrifice solidarity with traditional Muslim ally Azerbaijan to please the EU and Washington and pursue a more balanced Caucasus policy.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan, which was fighting Armenian-backed separatists in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
In public, Turkish officials reiterate they would normalize ties only in parallel with a process to settle Nagorno-Karabakh.
Analysts have speculated an agreement, which has yet to receive final approval, could contain "goodwill language" on Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to placate Baku.
The deal was announced before Friday's commemoration of Armenian deaths, when U.S. presidents routinely issue a statement.
Reopening the border would boost Turkey's profile as a peace broker and give landlocked Armenia access to Turkish and European markets but may hurt Europe's energy security plans.
Azerbaijan, Europe's key hope as a supplier of gas for the planned multi-billion-dollar Nabucco pipeline that would run through Turkey and cut Europe's dependence on Russia, warned against any deal that does not include a withdrawal of troops from Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Opening the border could lead to tensions in the region and would be contradictory to the interests of Azerbaijan," Azeri Foreign Ministry spokesman Elkhan Polukhov said.
Polukhov said it was "too early" to discuss what steps Azerbaijan might take in retaliation, but some analysts have warned it may affect future sales of Azeri gas.
Washington urged Ankara and Yerevan to normalize ties "within a reasonable timeframe".
"To us, that is a huge step. They're basically saying that we've got to move on from the past," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
The announcement, brokered under Swiss mediation, appears to remove the prospect for now that Obama may denounce the killings as genocide, a move that would hurt U.S.-Turkish ties. Obama said in Turkey he stood by his view the killings were genocide but added he did not want to obstruct a Turkish-Armenian thaw.
Armenia has controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies wholly within Azerbaijan, since a war that broke out in the last days of the Soviet Union. A ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, brokered by Russia, has held since 1994.
(Writing by Ibon Villlelabeitia; Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Istanbul; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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