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Armenia: Armenians Mark 90th Anniversary Of Start Of Massacres

Armenians in Yerevan commemorating the victims of Turkish massacres (epa) Armenians from around the world today commemorated the 90th anniversary of what they call "Genocide Day" -- the start of mass deportations and killings of their ethnic kin during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. For decades, survivors of those events and their descendants have lobbied for international recognition that "genocide" occurred. But successive Turkish governments have denied the kllings were aimed at exterminating the Christian Armenian population.

Prague, 24 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was a somber occasion as Armenians from all over the world gathered in Yerevan to commemorate the 90th anniversary of what they call "Genocide Day." On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities arrested some 250 Armenian community leaders in Yerevan.

It was the start two of years of mass expulsions and killings of Christian Armenians by Ottoman authorities. Ceremonies in Yerevan today included the laying of a wreath at the "genocide memorial" by Armenian President Robert Kocharian. Memorial masses also were being celebrated at Yerevan's Saint Gregory cathedral, as well as in churches all over Armenia.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kinsmen perished as a result of orchestrated killings as the Ottoman Empire -- the predecessor of modern Turkey -- was crumbling. Authorities in Ankara have consistently denied that version of events. Turkey says about 300,000 Armenians and thousands of Turks were killed as a result of "civil strife" when Armenians rose against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian troops.

In Yerevan on 23 April, more than 10,000 people marched with torches to demand that Turkey recognize the killings as genocide. Armenians say they hope their mass demonstrations will increase the pressure on Turkey. There are some signs that the effort may be working.

Europe Urges Turkey

Also on 23 April, the Conference of European Churches called on Turkey to recognize the genocide claim. On 22 April, French President Jacques Chirac accompanied President Kocharian to a Paris monument for victims of the massacre. And in Germany, members of parliament from across the political spectrum appealed to Turkey to accept the massacre of Armenians as part of its history, saying the move would help Ankara's EU aspirations.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan also says recognition of genocide will help Turkey's bid for European Union membership.

"Genocide today is still a threat for the international community. That issue has been addressed by the UN and others. Secondly, there is the issue of Turkey's accession into the European Union. That's why this issue has also come to the forefront. Because if Turkey would like to join the European Union, the EU must ask. That's what they are doing now -- so that Turkey comes to terms with its past," Oskanyan said.

Polish Nobel laureate and former president Lech Walesa has gone further. He says Armenians have the right to demand that the European Union bar Turkey from joining the bloc unless it admits to genocide.

On 19 April, Poland joined a list of 15 countries that have officially acknowledged the killings as genocide when its parliament passed a resolution condemning the Armenian massacres. The Polish decision has drawn protests from Ankara. Turkish officials call the move "irresponsible," and say it will hurt relations.

A Moral Issue

Armenian President Kocharian has been making some conciliatory gestures toward the government in Ankara. He says Yerevan will not ask for financial compensation if Turkey recognizes the killings as genocidal. Kocharian says recognition is a "moral issue" rather than a financial one.

Many members of the Armenian diaspora worldwide converged on Yerevan to take part in today's ceremonies. Among them is Rubina Pirumyan, a Los Angeles resident of Armenian descent who took part in the demonstration marches: "Today for me is a very special day. I've been doing this for years and years -- commemorating the memory of the genocide, of the victims of the Armenian genocide. And I am excited today because I am walking with the youth of Armenia," said Pirumyan.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently proposed the creation of a joint Armenian-Turkish commission to review the historical dispute. Several Turkish officials have said they think the study will confirm Turkey's arguments.

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