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Erdogan: No Politics During Turkey-Armenia Soccer Game

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "Respectable fans."
ANKARA (Reuters) -- Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has urged soccer fans to keep politics away when Turkey and Armenia face each other on the pitch in a World Cup qualifier, as the two neighbors aim to restore diplomatic ties.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has confirmed his attendance at a World Cup qualifier in Turkey on October 14, which will take place days after Ankara and Yerevan signed an accord to end a century of hostility.

Turkish leader Abdullah Gul went last year to Yerevan to the first leg of what has been called "soccer diplomacy" between the two countries, whose ties are traumatized by the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I.

"The Armenian president and the Armenian national team will see what Turkish hospitality is," Erdogan told deputies of his ruling AK Party ahead of the game in the city of Bursa.

"I know our soccer fans in Bursa and in the rest of the country will behave like respectable fans. I believe our country and the citizens of Bursa will not bow their heads to politics and to the aims of those who want to use the game to achieve something else," Erdogan said.

Turkish media said authorities will undertake tight security measures to avoid possible provocations during the game. "Aksam" newspaper said fans would not be allowed to buy tickets for the match, instead authorities would control ticket distribution.

The countries share a history of hostility stemming from the World War I mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, a defining element of Armenian national identity. Armenia says it was genocide, a term Turkey rejects.

Removing Another Hurdle

The match is seen as another step in normalizing ties.

Despite having signed accords on October 10 to establish diplomatic relations and reopen their border, Turkey's demands for progress on the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan, could see efforts to end a century of hostility between Turkey and Armenia stalled for months to come.

Turkey stands to boost its credentials as a modernizer in the West and remove another hurdle in its bid to join the European Union if Ankara and Yerevan can seal the rapprochement, but for now Turkey says it wants Armenian concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh to satisfy close Muslim ally Azerbaijan.

Turkey shut its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan, which was then fighting a losing battle against Armenian separatists in Karabakh.

The governor of Bursa has said Azeri flags will not be allowed into the stadium for the match, media reports said, but Turkish nationalists have made some 10,000 of the flags and are distributing them in the northwestern town.

In the Azeri capital, Baku, a group calling itself the Karabakh Liberation Organization held a brief protest near the Turkish Embassy, burning pictures of Turkey's Gul, Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Protests are rare in the tightly run former Soviet republic. Several dozen people took part, shouting, "Turkey, don't sell Karabakh to the Armenians," "Karabakh or death," and "Shame on the Turkish leadership," a Reuters reporter said.

Police later broke up the demonstration and several people were arrested.

The deal needs parliamentary approval in Turkey and Armenia. Sarkisian in particular faces vehement opposition from nationalists at home and the powerful Armenian diaspora abroad.