Us actor George Clooney, centre, poses for a photo with Aurora Prize Selection Committee members and finalists of the award, from left: Leymah Gbowee, Syeda Ghulam Fatima, Hina Jilani and Marguerite Barankitse in Yerevan, Armenia on Sunday. Image Credit: AP

Yerevan, Armenia: American actor George Clooney on Sunday joined Armenians marking 101 years since a massacre by Ottoman Turks of some 1.5 million ethnic Armenians.

Clooney attended a service at a hilltop memorial in the capital Yerevan led by Armenian church leader Catholicos Karekin II to commemorate the victims of the massacre.

The killing of more than 200 Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915 is regarded as the start of the massacre that is widely viewed by historians as the first genocide of the 20th century. Modern Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, vehemently rejects that the deaths constitute genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Clooney has been a prominent voice in favor of countries recognising the killings as genocide, which the United States has not done. Later Sunday, he will present the first Aurora Prize, an award recognising an individual’s work to advance humanitarian causes.

Memorial events in Armenia kicked off late Saturday with a torchlight march to the memorial complex.

In Washington, President Barack Obama declined on Friday to call the 1915 massacre genocide, breaking a key campaign promise as his presidency nears an end. Obama, marking the Armenian Remembrance Day, called the massacre the first mass atrocity of the 20th century and a tragedy that must not be repeated.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday visited the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to commemorate the dead.

Erdogan said in comments released by his press office that he grieves with the families of those “Ottoman Armenians” who were killed during World War I but also paid tribute to “all Ottoman citizens who lost their lives in the same period.”

He also lashed out at those who seek to portray the massacre as genocide.

“We will never give up working for amity and peace against those who try to politicise history through a bitter rhetoric of hate and enmity and strive to alienate the two neighboring nations,” he said.

In a commemorative speech, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan on Sunday mentioned a recent flare-up of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is officially a part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since a separatist war ended in 1994.

He lashed out at Azerbaijan for what he described as plans to drive all Armenians away from the region and pledged to protect Armenians living there.

Fighting earlier this month marked the worst violence since 1994 and both sides on Sunday reported the shelling of their positions by enemy fire.