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Reuters
Turkey on Tuesday criticized remarks by French President Jacques Chirac that Ankara must recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide before joining the European Union.

On a visit to Armenia last weekend, Chirac urged Turkey to come to terms with a dark episode in its history just as Germany had done with regard to the Holocaust under the Nazis.

Turkey strongly denies claims that Ottoman Turks committed a systematic genocide against Armenians during World War One, saying that large numbers of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks perished in a partisan conflict raging at that time.

"We were deeply saddened by the statements supporting the baseless Armenian claims during the visit by President Chirac to Armenia," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Chirac should instead support Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's call for a joint commission of Turkish and Armenian historians to assess what really happened more than 90 years ago, the ministry said. It noted that last year Chirac said the issue of France's own alleged maltreatment of peoples under its former colonial rule should be left to historians to argue over.

The Armenian issue is especially sensitive in France, which is home to a large Armenian diaspora and faces presidential elections next year. The French parliament is due to debate a bill by the Socialists opposition party proposing to punish anyone denying Armenian genocide claims on October 12.

Chirac has also promised French voters a chance to vote on whether Turkey should join the EU after it has completed its entry negotiations. The talks are expected to last many years.

The EU's Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said during a visit to Ankara on Tuesday that recognizing the Armenian massacres as genocide was not a condition for Turkey's EU membership. "We want to encourage a rational, constructive debate (about what happened)," said Rehn, who said he had welcomed Erdogan's proposal for a commission.

(Photolur photo: Chirac and his wife Bernadette lay flowers at the genocide memorial in Yerevan on Saturday.)
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