Yerevan: Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian on Thursday accused Turkey of an “utter denial” in failing to recognise First World War mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, apparently brushing off Ankara’s first ever offer of condolences for the tragedy.
In an unprecedented move described by the United States as a historic gesture, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday offered condolences over the massacres, calling them “our shared pain”.
But in a statement marking the 99th anniversary of the start of the killings and mass deportations, Sarkisian made no acknowledgement of Erdogan’s move and instead accused Turkey of continuing to ignore the facts.
“The Armenian genocide... is alive as far as the successor of the Ottoman Turkey continues its policy of utter denial,” he said.
“The denial of a crime constitutes the direct continuation of that very crime,” he added. “Only recognition and condemnation can prevent the repetition of such crimes in the future.”
He said the looming 100th anniversary offered “Turkey a good chance to repent and to set aside the historical stigma in case if they make efforts to set free their state’s future from this heavy burden.”
He also stressed that the events of 1915 “should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes towards one another.”
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington welcomed Erdogan’s “historic public acknowledgement of the suffering that Armenians experienced in 1915.”
Thursday was a day of national mourning in Armenia and requiem masses were held in churches across the country marking the 99th anniversary of the massacres.
All national television channels ran live broadcast of the annual ceremony which saw thousands of Armenians flocking to a hilltop memorial above Yerevan to lay flowers at the eternal flame.
“I came here for the first time with my father when I was five-year-old, today I came here with my grandson and he knows what we expect from the world and from Turkey,” 58-year-old resident of Yerevan Narine Balayan said.
“I do hope that when he comes here with his grandchildren all problems with Turkey will be resolved,” she said.
In Istanbul, a commemorations also took place but on a far smaller scale, gathering a few hundred people.
A group calling itself “The Platform for the Commemoration of 24 April’s Armenian Genocide” organised the rally on the steps of the Haydarpasa train station, from where the first convoy of Armenians were deported on April 24, 1915 after being rounded up by the authorities.
The group carried black and white photos of deportees and a banner that read: “We commemorate the victims of Armenian genocide: some wounds do not heal with time”.
“Yes, it is true. This is our shared pain. We are here to share the pain of Armenians,” activist Levent Sensever said.
Another demonstration was to be held later in Taksim Square, a traditional rallying point which was the scene of mass anti-government protests in June.
Traditionally, thousands of members of the Armenian diaspora from around the world arrive in Yerevan to take part in the ceremony.
This year saw many Armenians from conflict-ridden Syria — descendants of those who fled Ottoman persecution in 1915 — return to the ancestral homeland.
In his Thursday statement Sarkisian said the fate of Armenians in Syria “is our open wound and the issue of our primary concern.”
On Wednesday, young activists of the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party burned Turkish flags and led a 15,000-strong torch-lit procession in Yerevan.
They held placards that read “Recognition-Condemnation-Compensation” and “Turkey still hides behind lies.”
One of Dashnaktsutyun leaders, Kiro Manoyan, denounced Erdogan’s statement as an “attempt to deceive us and the world.”
Erdogan acknowledged that the events of 1915 had “inhumane consequences” but also said it was “inadmissable” for them to be used as an excuse today for hostility against Turkey.
Using both diplomatic levers and its influential diaspora abroad, Armenia has long sought to win the massacre’s international recognition as genocide.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million people were killed during First World War as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart, a claim supported by several other countries.
Turkey argues 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers siding with invading Russian troops.
Over 20 countries have so far recognised the massacres as genocide.