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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Turkish president Abdullah Gul to attend soccer match in Armenia

Turkish President Abdullah Gul will travel Saturday to Armenia to watch a World Cup soccer qualifying match between the two countries -- a move promoted as a step toward bolstering relations between neighbor nations with a long history of animosity.

"We believe such visit will contribute to the creation of a warmer friendship climate in the region," said a statement from Gul's office, which added Armenian President Serj Sarkisyan extended the invitation. "Our president has accepted the invitation with this understanding," it said.

"It is also hoped this visit will offer the opportunity for the citizens of two nations to understand each other better."

Gul would be the first Turkish head of state to visit Armenia, which was a Soviet repu
blic until 1991, in an official capacity.

The neighboring nations in the Caucasus region, straddling Europe and the Middle East, have no official diplomatic relations and their shared border has has been closed since 1993.

Much of the animosity stems from mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I.

Armenians call the killings genocide. Historians estimate about 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire -- the predecessor to modern Turkey -- during the war.

Turkey, which is now a secular and democratic Muslim nation, calls the killings part of the natural course of war, says far fewer than 1.5 million Armenians were killed and says a comparable number of Turks died in the conflict.

Last year, members of the U.S. House of Representatives sponsored a resolution that would have declared the killings an act of genocide. But, under pressure from the Bush administration, House leaders dropped plans for a vote.

The administration was trying to persuade Turkey not to launch cross-border raids into Iraq against Kurdish rebels and Turkey had threatened to curtail U.S. access to military bases used to support U.S. troops in Iraq if the resolution had passed.

In 2005, Turkey moved away from its historical position of blanket denial -- calling for an "open investigation" by scholars from both countries into the genocide allegations. The Armenian government has declined to take part, calling it a political maneuver.

When the soccer match was announced last year -- the first time the two nations have played each other in soccer at the highest level -- questions were raised as to whether tensions would be too high for the game to be played as planned.

But political and sports leaders from both nations quickly moved to play down the political implications of the match, in which Turkey is heavily favored.

"You cannot play a game thinking about those things," Turkish coach Fatih Terim told the Turkish Daily News. "We cannot carry the weight of history on our shoulders."

Source: wires

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