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By Gareth Jones, Reuters
Armenia appealed to Turkey on Monday to open their shared border, saying this was the essential first step for making any progress on historical disputes that divide the two countries.

Turkey closed the border in 1993 to protest against Armenia's occupation of territory inside Azerbaijan, Ankara's close Turkic ally. Ties between Ankara and Yerevan have also been strained by Armenia's claim -- backed by many other countries -- that its people suffered a systematic genocide at Ottoman Turkish hands in 1915. Turkey denies any genocide took place.

"First and foremost, to address the problematic issues between us, we need as a bare minimum an open border between our two countries," Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told a news conference in Istanbul. "This is how civilized countries operate ... The only closed border on the European continent today is that between Turkey and Armenia."

But Oskanian, in Istanbul for a meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization (BSEC), said his talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on Monday gave little ground for hope. "There is no change in the Turkish position," he said, adding that Armenia hoped that after July 22 elections in Turkey a new government might be ready to review the border policy.

Ankara says Armenia must first reach a peace settlement with Azerbaijan over the disputed province of Karabakh, an enclave populated by ethnic Armenians inside Azeri territory. On the genocide issue, Turkey has proposed forming a joint commission of Turkish, Armenian and other historians to investigate the events of 1915 and to determine whether they constituted genocide.

Ankara acknowledges that large numbers of Armenians living in Turkey were killed or deported during that period, but not in a systematic genocide. It says many Muslim Turks also perished in fierce inter-ethnic conflict as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Oskanian said Armenia would consider taking part in such a commission if the border were opened and normal diplomatic ties established between the two countries. But he also criticized the Turkish commission proposal, saying it was an attempt to discourage parliaments around the world from recognizing the Armenian massacres as genocide.

Turkey fears the U.S. Congress may in the coming months approve a resolution recognizing the killings as genocide, following the lead of the European Parliament and legislatures in France, Russia, Greece, Canada and many other countries.

In Turkey, asserting that there was an Armenian genocide is a crime.

(Photolur photo)
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