- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

ANKARA, Turkey | Armenia and Turkey agreed Monday to establish diplomatic relations, overcoming a seemingly intractable rift that dates to the early 20th century and was marked by massacres of Armenians under Ottoman rule.

The neighboring countries would be setting up and developing relations for the first time, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Burak Ozugergin said.

It is unclear, however, whether plans for six weeks of talks leading to a formal ceremony formalizing ties will touch on the dispute over the World War I-era killings.

The issue is a major stumbling block to Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union and has strained ties with the United States. Historians estimate that, in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in what many Armenians say is the first genocide of the 20th century.

Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, contending the toll has been inflated and that the casualties were victims of civil war. It says Turks also suffered losses in the hands of Armenian gangs.

Turkey and Armenia also disagree about Armenian forces’ control of the Arzerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is a close ally of Azerbaijan and backs Azerbaijan’s claims on the region, which has a high number of ethnic Armenian residents but is located within Azerbaijan’s borders.

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence in 1991, but the two countries never established diplomatic relations and their joint border has been closed since 1993.

Ties began to improve after a so-called soccer diplomacy campaign last year, when Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended a World Cup qualifier in Armenia.

Armenia’s President Serge Sarkisian has said he wants significant diplomatic progress on the reopening of their shared border before he will agree to attend a World Cup qualifying match in Turkey on Oct. 14.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the upcoming talks, agreed to after mediation by Switzerland, should last about six weeks.

Armenian political commentator Artyom Yerkanian, speaking during a special broadcast on Armenian television, suggested the agreement to establish ties could be signed at the October match in Turkey.

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