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Europe

Sarkozy Praises Turkish President's Historic Armenia Visit

Turkish President Abdullah Gul made a landmark visit to long-time foe Armenia -- a trip French President Nicolas Sarkozy called "courageous and historic."

Turkish President Abdullah Gul waves as he boards a plane in Ankara before leaving for Armenia to watch a soccer game with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian

Gul's visit could be the first step toward reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia

Turkish media reported that both countries were pleased with the half-day trip on Saturday, Sept. 6, and described it as a good start for resumption of relations.

"While the region is in the midst of a serious crisis, (the visit) is a courageous and historic gesture for Turkish-Armenian relations," said Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency, in a statement.

"It allows for progress soon in establishing normal relations between Turkey and Armenia," he added.

Football diplomacy

In the Armenian capital Yerevan for less than eight hours, Gul met with his counterpart Serzh Sarkisian for an hour before the two watched Turkey defeat Armenia 2-0 in a World Cup qualifying match.

Turkish television reported that the two leaders had discussed a number of issues, including a Turkish initiative to establish a joint historical committee to look at the genocide issue, Turkey's bid to set up a Caucasus platform to solve regional problems and Armenia's continuing occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenians protest holding national and party flags outside the palace where the Turkish and Armenian presidents met in Yerevan

Some people in both countries opposed the presidents' talks

Gul also invited his Armenian counterpart to join him in Istanbul in October when Turkey next plays Armenia in the World Cup qualifiers, Turkish media reported.

Small groups of Armenians protested Gul's arrival at Yerevan's Zvartnots Airport Saturday, while others demonstrated in different parts of the city, but there were no reports of violence.

At the match itself, protests against Gul were restricted to some booing of the Turkish national anthem and small groups of people holding anti-Turkish posters. Gul was seated in a special bullet-proof area.

Historic strain runs deep

Turkey and Armenia do not have diplomatic relations and the land border between the two countries was closed by Turkey in 1993 in protest of the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Relations are also strained by Turkey's refusal to accept as genocide the deaths of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917. Turkey says that while there were massacres of ethnic Armenians, the events do not constitute genocide, and were instead the result of a civil uprising during World War I.

Gul's visit was the first by a Turkish head of state to Armenia since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"I hope that the match that will be played today will be a catalyst to eliminating obstacles that are preventing the two peoples, who share a common history, from getting closer, and that it will contribute to regional friendship and peace," Gul said at Ankara's Esenboga Airport earlier on Saturday.

Gul's visit has split the Turkish public, with newspapers reporting that around 60 percent were against the trip.

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