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Armenia to step up "genocide" recognition drive

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenia’s new president said on Thursday he will seek “historic justice” for 1.5 million ethnic Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks, claimed as a genocide by Yerevan and which still affects relations with Turkey.

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Turkey strongly denies Armenian claims, backed by many Western historians, that the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One amounted to a systematic genocide.

The issue has evolved into a source of tension that has complicated Ankara’s relations with the United States and the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join.

President Serzh Sarksyan, who was sworn into office this month, said in a speech to mark Armenia’s annual Genocide Day that securing international condemnation of the killings nearly a century ago would be a priority for his administration.

“As a result of the genocide that was planned and carried out by the state in Ottoman Turkey, a vast number of Armenians were annihilated on their native land and lost their living space,” Sarksyan said in a statement.

“International recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide is an appropriate and inevitable part of Armenia’s foreign policy agenda,” he said in the statement. “The Motherland of all Armenians, the Republic of Armenia, should redouble its efforts for the restoration of historic justice.”

Thousands of Armenians -- some with tears in their eyes -- laid wreaths of carnations and tulips in Yerevan at a memorial that honours those who perished in the killings, which took place between 1915 and 1923.

The tiny ex-Soviet republic of Armenia is sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan in a region that is emerging as an important transit route for oil exports from the Caspian Sea to world markets, although Armenia has no pipelines of its own.

Armenia insists the killings should be declared a genocide and the massacres have been recognised as such by some Western lawmakers.

But Ankara says large numbers of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks were killed during the violent and chaotic break-up of the Ottoman Empire. A law in Turkey makes it criminal offence to call the killings a genocide.

Armenia and its neighbour Turkey have no diplomatic links, although Turkish President Abdullah Gul this month sent a letter to Yerevan calling for dialogue to normalise ties.

Turkey has kept its land border with Armenia closed since the early 1990s in protest at Yerevan’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a slice of territory belonging to ally Azerbaijan which is populated by ethnic Armenians. Turkey also objects to Yerevan’s claims on some of its land.

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Catherine Evans