(AFP) – Apr 24, 2009
YEREVAN (AFP) — Thousands of Armenians on Friday marked the 94th anniversary of mass killings under the Ottoman Empire amid signs that decades of tensions with Turkey may be easing.
US President Barack Obama made a much awaited statement to mark the day in which he avoided using the politically charged term "genocide" to describe the deaths.
Thousands attended a hilltop memorial in Yerevan to commemorate the killings that began in 1915 and led to a mass exodus of Armenians from what is now eastern Turkey.
Armenians insist the killings constituted genocide and the issue has caused almost a century of tension with Turkey, which strongly rejects the label.
But this year's commemorations came as Armenia and Turkey have been edging towards reconciliation.
The two countries this week announced a "road map" for talks that could lead to the normalising of ties and the opening of their border.
President Serzh Sarkisian, joined at the ceremonies by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Karekin II, said in a statement that Yerevan would still 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 in history.
"The international recognition and condemnation of the Armenian genocide is a matter of reinstating historic justice," Sarkisian said.
But he also reached out to Turkey, saying "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."
Armenians say up to 1.5 million people were killed or died during forced deportations between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's predecessor, was falling apart.
Hemi Zhamkochian, a 100-year-old survivor of the massacres, told Armenian television that she was still tormented by her experiences.
"I can still hear the voices of the Turks who rushed into our home and screamed 'Get out!" and 'Turkey is for Turks!'," said Zhamkochian, who was born in Van in eastern Turkey and now lives in a village near Yerevan.
"I remember a bridge of death, where they threw so many women and children into the river," she said. "People were being killed left and right... Of our family of six, only two survived."
In rejecting the genocide label, Turkey says between 300,000 and 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in strife as Armenians took up arms in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading Russian troops.
Many countries, including France and Canada, have recognised the massacres as genocide but Obama has not followed up on a presidential campaign pledge to follow their lead.
While he followed diplomatic tradition by making a declaration on Armenian Remembrance Day, Obama instead used an Armenian term variously translated as "The Great Calamity" or "Great Disaster."
"Each year, we pause to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were subsequently massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire," he said.
"The Meds Yeghern must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people."
Analysts had warned that Obama would be unwilling to endanger reconciliation efforts by using the term "genocide" which he avoided during a visit to Turkey this month.
In Ankara, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said he and Obama had discussed the issue at length and that Obama "is now better informed on all these questions."
Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia. After briefly opening the frontier, it closed it again in 1993 in solidarity with close ally Azerbaijan over Armenia's backing for separatists in the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region.
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