Armenians mourn victims of mass killings
Yerevan: Tens of thousands of Armenians on Saturday marked the 95th anniversary of mass killings under the Ottoman Empire amid fresh tensions with Turkey over the collapse of reconciliation efforts.
Despite the political tensions, this year also saw the anniversary marked for the first time in Turkey, where human rights activists and artists broke with taboo and commemorated the massacres in Istanbul.
Under grey skies in the Armenian capital Yerevan, a steady stream of people marched from early morning to lay flowers at a hilltop memorial to the massacres, which Armenians insist constituted genocide.
Turkey fiercely rejects the genocide label and the dispute has poisoned relations between the two neighbours for decades.
Unprecedented reconciliation efforts begun last year fell apart just before the anniversary, when Armenia announced it was halting ratification of agreements normalising ties.
President Serzh Sarkisian, who attended a solemn ceremony at the memorial with the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Karekin II, said in a statement that international recognition that the killings constituted genocide was inevitable.
"We thank all of those who in many countries of the world, including in Turkey, understand the importance of preventing crimes against humanity and who stand with us in this struggle. This process has an inevitable momentum which has no alternative," he said.
In Istanbul, the local branch of the IHD human rights association organised a rally attended by about 100 people on the steps of the Haydarpasa train station, from where the first convoy of Armenians were deported after being rounded up by authorities on April 24, 1915.
Under the slogan "Never Again," demonstrators carried black and white photos of some of the deportees as police kept at bay a group of counter-demonstrators.
Another demonstration was to be held at 7:00 p.m. (1600 GMT) in Taksim square, the heart of modern Istanbul.
Turkish intellectuals and artists signed a petition calling on "those who feel the great pain" to show their sorrow.
Avoiding an open confrontation over the term genocide, the petition speaks of the "Great Catastrophe" of the massacres.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kin were systematically killed between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, was falling apart.
Turkey categorically rejects the genocide label and says between 300,000 and 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians took up arms in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading Russian troops.
Armenia and Turkey signed a landmark deal in October to establish diplomatic ties and reopen their border, in a move internationally hailed as a key step in overcoming the two countries' long-standing enmity.
But ratification of the deal faltered amid mutual recriminations that the other side was not committed to reconciliation and Armenia on Thursday announced it was removing the agreement from its parliament's agenda.
Yerevan blamed Turkey for stalling ratification and linking the agreement with Armenia's conflict with Turkish ally Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region.
Many Armenians attending Saturday's events in Yerevan said they supported the government's decision.
"As long as Turkey has not apologised to us our wound remains open and we will demand recognition of the genocide from the world and Turkey," said 32-year-old Sasun Gledjian.
"Our president acted correctly by suspending the process of ratification. Turkey is not ready to recognise the truth."
The governments or parliaments of many countries, including France and Canada, have recognised the massacres as genocide and Armenians will also be watching Saturday for US President Barack Obama's traditional statement on the killings.
Last year Obama avoided using the politically charged term "genocide" in a move analysts said was aimed at not endangering the reconciliation efforts.