AFP - Armenians marked the 94th anniversary of mass killings of their kin under the Ottoman Empire Friday amid signs that decades-old tensions with Turkey may be easing.
Under sunny skies in the capital Yerevan, thousands climbed to a hilltop memorial to commemorate the killings that began in 1915 and led to a mass exodus of Armenians from what is now eastern Turkey.
Tens of thousands take part in the procession every year, including many from Armenia's widespread diaspora who travel to Yerevan for the event.
Armenians regard the massacres as genocide and many countries, including France and Canada, have officially recognised them as such.
Turkey strongly rejects the genocide label and has long refused to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia over the dispute, but this year's anniversary comes as fence-mending efforts gather steam.
The two countries announced this week they had agreed on a "road map" for reconciliation that could eventually lead to the normalising of ties and the opening of their shared border.
In his annual statement to mark the anniversary, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said Yerevan would continue to push for international recognition of the killings as genocide.
"Crimes against humanity do not have an expiration date, neither in the memories of the people nor from history.... The international recognition and condemnation of the Armenian genocide is a matter of reinstating historic justice," he said.
But he also reached out to Turkey, saying questions of history need not affect current ties.
"The process of recognition of the Armenian genocide is not directed against the Turkish people, and recognition of the genocide by Turkey is not a precondition for the establishment of bilateral relations," Sarkisian said.
Many of those marching in the procession said Armenia should not establish ties with Turkey until the country recognises the killings as genocide.
"How can we establish friendly relations when every year on this day we on this side of the border remember the genocide with the great pain of injustice in our hearts, while on the other side of the border Turkey denies this?" asked Arpi Glechian, a 72-year-old pensioner.
But analysts say many in Armenia support the government's efforts to establish links with Turkey, in the hope that opening the border will end the country's long economic isolation.
Many Armenians are also hoping US President Barack Obama will on Friday honour a pledge to use the term "genocide" during an annual White House statement on the killings.
But analysts say that after the "road map" announcement it is unlikely Obama will endanger reconciliation efforts by using the politically charged term.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kin were systematically killed between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's predecessor, was falling apart.
Turkey rejects the genocide label, saying 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.
In 1993, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in a show of solidarity with close ally Azerbaijan amid the war over Nagorny Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan that was fighting to break free of Baku's control.