By Jocelyne Zablit, AFP
Lebanon's Armenians, who have not forgotten the massacres their people suffered under Ottoman rule, demonstrated Friday against Turkish troops set to take part in a UN peacekeeping mission.
Waving Lebanese flags and banners denouncing Turkey as a murderous state, several hundred gathered in the Beirut suburb of Burj Hammud, heavily populated by Armenians, and appealed to the United Nations to reconsider Turkey's participation in an expanded UN force in Lebanon.
"Genocide, massacre, deportation: Turkey's definition of peace," read one banner. "No to the participation of Turkish forces among UN troops coming to Lebanon," read another.
"We had 1.5 million of our people slaughtered under the Turks and you expect us to welcome them?" asked Arous Ghougassian, the owner of a home furnishing business. "I can assure you that I won't sell them anything if they come into my shop," she said.
Hagop, an employee at the Basterma Mano food store, raised his fists in anger when asked about the Turkish UN force. "Look at my arms, I get goose bumps when you refer to them," he said. "If they dare come into our neighborhoods we'll deal with them."
Garo Hovsipian, a shopkeeper, said he could not put to rest the massacre of his uncle and grandparents by the Turks in 1915. "I somehow become a fanatic when I hear the word Turkey," he said, drawing on a cigar. "It brings back memories of my ancestors, our history, the massacres. Still if I encounter any soldiers I will treat them as guests because we are more civilized than them."
Lebanon's minority Armenian community, which numbers about 140,000 people, has objected to Turkey taking part in the UN force because of mass killings of Armenians by Turks in 1915.
"Turkey, which carried out horrible crimes against humanity, cannot take part in any peace process until it recognizes the massacre of the Armenian people," Jacques Choukhadarian, a former MP and minister, told Friday's gathering.
Representatives of the community have sent letters to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and to Western embassies in Beirut urging them to reject Turkish participation in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) set to number 15,000 troops from various countries. Religious leaders has also issued a statement calling the Turkish participation in UNIFIL "morally unacceptable".
The Turkish parliament voted after fierce debate at an extraordinary session Tuesday to authorize the government to send troops to take part in the UN force to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has said the number of soldiers is not likely to exceed 1,000.
Under the old Ottoman empire, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians are said to have been killed or died after being forcibly driven from their homes in Turkey between 1915 and 1917. Ankara rejects all accusations of genocide, estimating the number of Armenian deaths at 300,000 and arguing they were not a consequence of deliberate extermination but a combination of war, disease, famine and ethnic conflict.