Turkish president's football visit turns political

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul landed in Armenia on Saturday, ostensibly to watch a football match between the two countries. However, Gul's visit, the first by a Turkish head of state to ex-Soviet Armenia, was met by hundreds of protesters.


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Turkey's President Abdullah Gul embarked on an historic trip to neighbouring Armenia on Saturday as hundreds of Armenian nationalists prepared to greet him with an angry protest.

As Gul touched down, several hundred demonstrators carrying Armenian flags and red banners bearing the emblem of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation formed a human chain along the route his motorcade was to take from the airport.

Carrying banners saying "Recognise the genocide" and "Open the border without preconditions", they showed the extent of the task ahead for Gul as he seeks to tackle decades of animosity.

"We are here because we want to tell the entire world that we do not forget the genocide of 1915. We will not welcome Gul or any other Turk until they have recognised the genocide," one of the protesters, Bardasar Akhpar, told AFP.

The two countries have no diplomatic relations and have waged a bitter international diplomatic battle over Yerevan's attempts to have massacres of Armenians under the Turkish Ottoman Empire classified as genocide.

Gul landed in the Armenian capital at 1145 GMT, and was to meet with President Serzh Sarkisian before a soccer World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Turkey scheduled to begin at 1600 GMT.

Before departing, he said he hoped his trip, which has been billed as "football diplomacy", would pave the way for closer ties between the two neighbours.

"It is my wish that this match will help lift the barriers dividing two people who share a common history and will contribute to regional friendship and peace," Gul said.

Under attack from the opposition at home, Gul only publicly accepted Sarkisian's invitation this week to attend the match and become the first Turkish head of state to visit ex-Soviet Armenia since its independence.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their people were killed between 1915 and 1917 in orchestrated massacres during World War I as the Ottoman Empire fell apart -- a claim supported by several other countries.

Turkey rejects the genocide label and argues that 300,000-500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians took up arms for independence in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading Russian troops.

Ahead of the visit, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said diplomatic ties would be discussed but played down the chance of a major breakthrough.

"I don't think we should raise expectations that high," he added. "But on the other hand, when we open the doors for dialogue that means we are ready to talk about the problems."

Tight security measures were in place in Yerevan for the visit.

Officials said extra measures would be employed on Gul's route from the airport and to the match, and media reported that both Turkish and Armenian snipers would be training their sights across Yerevan's Hrazdan stadium.

Apart from the protestors on the road to the airport, the streets of Yerevan appeared quiet ahead of the game.

Planeloads of Turkish fans and peace activists have been arriving in the city since Friday, officials said.

"I'm not interested in football at all. In fact, I hate it because of the nationalism that comes with it," said Ahmet Turkana, a Turkish activist from a pro-democracy group called Young Civilians, who came for the game.

"But today it's different. Football is here to unite, not to divide."

Sevak Sahakian, a hotel worker in Yerevan said: "Everyone knows about it and people are happy because they hope better ties with Turkey will improve daily life. But people aren't enthusiastic because they don't trust the Turks."

The trip will only last a few hours, but Gul and Sarkisian are expected to hold talks on Turkey's proposal for a Caucasus regional security forum, trying to avoid contentious bilateral problems, according to diplomatic sources.

Experts in both countries have stressed this is just a cautious first step.

"The Turkish president's visit to Armenia is of huge importance," said Yerevan-based political analyst Sergei Shakariants.

"But it is impossible to expect that a first meeting will be enough to resolve problems that have endured for centuries. This meeting is a simple first contact," he said.

Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia since the former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991.

In 1993 Turkey also shut its border with Armenia in a show of solidarity with its close ally Azerbaijan, then at war with Armenia over Nagorny Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region in Azerbaijan which declared independence.

The move dealt a heavy blow to Armenia, an impoverished nation wedged between Turkey and Azerbaijan in the strategic Caucasus region.


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