Erdogan invites Armenian leader to join Gallipoli commemoration

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, pictured here in Yerevan on May 13, 2014, said Turkey is "trying to divert world attention" from the 100th anniversary of the massacre of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman forces (AFP Photo/Stephane de Sakutin)
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Ankara (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invited his Armenian counterpart to attend commemoration ceremonies in Turkey marking the 100th anniversary of the World War I Gallipoli campaign this year, officials said Friday.

In a surprise move, Erdogan has sent invitation letters to more than 100 leaders, including US President Barack Obama and the Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, to participate in the Gallipoli centenary on April 24, two Turkish officials contacted by AFP confirmed.

Yet it appears highly unlikely Sarkisian will appear, given the event takes place on precisely the same day Armenians mark the mass killings of their ancestors by Ottoman forces in World War I.

The Gallipoli campaign was one of the most famous battles of World War I when Ottoman troops resisted an invading Allied Force seeking control of the Gallipoli peninsula on the Dardanelles strait.

The war was also where the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, made his name as a heroic military leader.

"We fought as a kind together. That's why we have invited Sarkisian," a government official was quoted as saying by local media, referring to the presence of Armenian minorities alongside Turks and other peoples in the Ottoman army.

But ceremonies coincide exactly with the 100th anniversary of the mass killings of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

Armenians and the Armenian diaspora, who plan to mark the anniversary on April 24, want the killings to be recognised as genocide -- something Turkey has vehemently rejected.

- 'Date brought forward' -

The main group in France for the Armenian diaspora accused Erdogan of deliberately timing the Gallipoli ceremony to undermine planned commemorations of the Armenian tragedy in Yerevan on the same day.

The CCAF questioned Erdogan's motives on bringing forward the Gallipoli ceremony to April 24, when the annual commemoration there is normally held on April 25.

"This manoeuvre is clearly aimed at neutralising the presence of heads of state in Yerevan by making them choose," it said, adding that Ankara wanted the April 24 Yerevan ceremonies to have the "minimum" international echo.

In a previous letter, Sarkisian himself formally invited Erdogan to visit Yerevan in April to join commemorations there shortly after the Turkish strongman was sworn in as president in August.

Britain, Australia and New Zealand reportedly want a flamboyant ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli.

Local media said the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand, as well as Britain's Prince Charles, with his sons, are expected to attend the ceremonies.

An invitation has also been sent to German President Joachim Gauck.

Some 10,500 people from Australia and New Zealand who were selected after a ballot are due to take part in a dawn service a day later on April 25, an Australian embassy official told AFP.

Last year Erdogan, then premier, offered an unprecedented expression of condolence for the massacres of Armenians.

But this did little to satisfy Armenians, who want the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people recognised as genocide.

This month, Erdogan said he would "actively" challenge a campaign to pressure Turkey to recognise genocide.

A latest survey showed that only 9.1 percent of those questioned believe Ankara should apologise for the deaths during Ottoman rule in 1915 and describe them as genocide.

Neighbours Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic ties largely because of the historical dispute. In 2009, the two sides signed a protocol to normalise relations but the deal has been suspended since.

"I don't think we need to hurry 100 years on," Etyen Mahcupyan, top advisor to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and one of the very rare Armenians to have held a senior government post, told AFP in December.

"I am talking about a normalisation which spans time."

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