April 24, 2010 / 7:00 PM / 8 years ago

Armenians mark WWI killings, ties with neighbors fray

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenia marked the 95th anniversary Saturday of the World War One killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, against a backdrop of failed peace with Turkey and fresh saber-rattling with enemy Azerbaijan.

A deal between Turkey and Armenia to establish diplomatic ties and reopen their border collapsed Thursday when Armenia suspended ratification over Turkish demands it first make peace with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The roadmap was crafted to overcome a century of hostility since the massacres and deportations of World War One, marked on Saturday by a stream of thousands laying red tulips and white carnations at a hilltop monument in the Armenian capital.

But its failure has only fueled further mistrust in the volatile South Caucasus.

Key to its collapse has been a backlash in Azerbaijan, a close Muslim ally of Turkey and oil and gas exporter to the West, that diplomats say has forced Turkey to backtrack.

Azerbaijan branded the deal a betrayal of efforts to negotiate a solution to Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians backed by Christian Armenia threw off Azeri rule in the early 1990s in a war that killed 30,000 people.

Turkey closed its frontier with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan during the war. Some analysts are skeptical whether the collapse of the Turkey-Armenia deal will do much to allay Azeri suspicions.

Azerbaijan has threatened war in the past to take back the mountain enclave, but the rhetoric has sharpened since Armenia and Turkey announced their rapprochement a year ago with the backing of the U.S., Russia and the European Union.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan used the anniversary to reiterate Ankara’s position that peace with Armenia depends on Armenia first reaching terms with Azerbaijan.

“The peace protocols (between Turkey and Armenia) will not go into effect before peace is established between Azerbaijan and Armenia. We have conveyed this very clearly to (Armenian President Serzh) Sarkysan,” Erdogan said in a statement.

President Barack Obama, in a statement to commemorate the events, called the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, but avoided any mention of “genocide.”

Obama said that he was “encouraged by the dialogue among Turks and Armenians, and within Turkey itself, regarding this painful history.”

NEW ANIMOSITY

Friday, Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiyev said his army was ready to “hit any target on the territory of Armenia,” if given the order.

In response, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan said Saturday that Yerevan wanted to resolve the issue peacefully, but added: “If Azerbaijan tries use force against our people, that will impact very badly on Azerbaijan, it will result in a very desperate situation, because we have another advantage in that we are defending our homeland.”

Animosity was on display as Armenians commemorated the World War One killings, a defining element of Armenian national identity that is recognized as genocide by a number of foreign states and Western historians.

Turkey rejects the term and denies that up to 1.5 million Armenians died. It says many Muslim Turks and Kurds, as well as Christian Armenians, were killed in inter-communal violence as Russian forces invaded eastern Anatolia during World War One.

“Turkey and Azerbaijan will always be our enemies,” said 22- year-old graduate Grigor Kafalian, an Armenian born in Lebanon, as he attended a march of several thousand through Yerevan late Friday to demand Turkey recognize the massacres as genocide.

Armenians around the world marked the anniversary. In Lebanon, thousands gathered in the capital Beirut, some carrying banners that read: “Turkey, the black file of justice” and “Impunity for Turkey nurtures culture of violence.”

Tens of thousands more flocked to the hilltop monument in Yerevan — twelve shields of grey basalt, leaning inwards toward a flame set in a sunken bowl.

“Our president did everything to fix relations, but now it’s up to Turkey,” said Alush Vartanyan, 48.

Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Noah Barkin

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