Armenia, Turkey move toward diplomatic ties

YEREVAN Mon Aug 31, 2009 10:54pm EDT

People gather near flowers at a ceremony marking the anniversary of mass killings of Armenians in 1915, in Yerevan April 24, 2009. REUTERS/Matt Robinson

People gather near flowers at a ceremony marking the anniversary of mass killings of Armenians in 1915, in Yerevan April 24, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Matt Robinson

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YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenia and Turkey moved closer to establishing diplomatic ties and reopening their border on Monday, saying they would sign accords within six weeks under a plan to end a century of hostility.

The neighbors have no diplomatic ties, a closed border and a history of animosity stemming from the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One.

Both sides said they would hold domestic consultations before signing two protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and development of bilateral relations.

"The political consultations will be completed within six weeks, following which the two Protocols will be signed and submitted to the respective Parliaments for the ratification on each side," the foreign ministries of Armenia and Turkey said in a statement issued jointly with Switzerland as mediator.

"Both sides will make their best efforts for the timely progression of the ratification in line with their constitutional and legal procedures."

Turkey rejects Armenian claims the World War One killings, a defining element of Armenian national identity, amounted to genocide, and says many people were killed on both sides of the conflict.

According to copies of the protocols seen by Reuters, the border -- closed by Turkey in 1993 -- will reopen within two months of the protocol on the development of relations entering into force.

The plan to normalize ties was announced in April, but Monday's statement marked the first real progress.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the joint statement, saying normalization should take place without preconditions and within a reasonable timeframe.

"We urge Armenia and Turkey to proceed expeditiously," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement. "We remain ready to work closely with both governments in support of normalization, a historic process that will contribute to peace, security and stability throughout the region."

Anticipation has been growing ahead of a planned visit by Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan to Turkey on October 14, when he is due to attend the return leg of a World Cup qualifying football match between the two countries.

RISKS ANGERING AZERBAIJAN

Sarksyan has said he will not travel to the game, the first leg of which Turkish President Abdullah Gul watched last year in Yerevan, unless the border has reopened or there are clear signs it is about to open.

Turkey closed the frontier in 1993 in solidarity with Muslim ally Azerbaijan, which was fighting Armenian-backed separatists in the breakaway mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But since announcing the road map, Turkish government officials -- faced with a backlash from Azerbaijan -- have said the border will not reopen until Armenia makes concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Reopening the border and establishing ties with Armenia would improve Turkey's clout in the region and aid its bid to join the European Union. It would also give landlocked Armenia, reeling from the global financial crisis, access to Turkish and European markets.

But it risks angering Azerbaijan, an oil and gas supplier to the West and Europe's key for gas supplies for the planned Nabucco pipeline. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, with Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces facing off over a tense frontline 15 years since agreeing a ceasefire.

Under the protocol on bilateral relations, Turkey and Armenia agree to "implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations."

(Additional reporting by Zerin Elci in Istanbul, and JoAnne Allen in Washington; writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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