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Turkish President Pursues Football Diplomacy on Armenia Trip

Turkish President Abdullah Gul is undertaking a historic visit to Armenia that analysts have said marks a thaw in relations between the inimical neighbors.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul

Gul will attend the Armenia-Turkey soccer match in Yerevan

Gul's day trip to Yerevan where he will meet his Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisian and then attend a Armenia-Turkey World Cup qualifying match is the first visit 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 Saturday afternoon.

While Turkey immediately recognized Armenian independence, Turkey cut off all ties and closed its land border in 1993 following Armenia's occupation of Azeri 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. Turkey says that while there were massacres of ethnic-Armenians the events do do constitute genocide and were instead the result of a civil uprising during the First World War.

Visit opposed in both countries

Gul's visit has split the Turkish public with newspapers reporting that around 60 percent are against the trip. Opposition parties have condemned the visit and deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) made a group decision that none of its parliamentarians would attend the match.

Protests are also expected to take place in the Armenian capital of Yerevan with Armenians upset with the visit.

The trip aims to soften hardened attitudes in both countries with Gul expected to bring up a number of issues during his one-hour meeting with Sarkisian -- 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 continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

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