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Armenia, Turkey pursue 'soccer diplomacy'

Turkey defeated longtime foe Armenia on a soccer field Wednesday — an event that had little significance in the world of sports but meant a lot in the arena of international politics.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Turkey defeated longtime foe Armenia on a soccer field Wednesday — an event that had little significance in the world of sports but meant a lot in the arena of international politics.

Armenian President Serge Sarkisian arrived in Turkey to attend the World Cup qualifier after a dinner hosted by Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Bursa, a former Ottoman imperial capital. Gul attended an initial game in Armenia in a goodwill gesture last year, kicking off a round of "football diplomacy" that led to the signing last weekend of an agreement to establish diplomatic ties and open their border within two months.

Turkey's Halil Altintop scored with a header in the 16th minute, and Servet Cetin fired the ball into the Armenian net in the 28th minute to make it 2-0, a lead that held until the end. After the first goal, Sarkisian shook Gul's hand to congratulate him.

The game, televised live in both countries, began after Turkish fans booed and whistled as an announcer read out the Armenian lineup, and cheered the Turkish players. Some fans released white doves in a gesture of peace that drew applause in the stadium.

The announcer urged fans to show "traditional Turkish hospitality" to the visiting team and not to jeer or whistle during the playing of the Armenian national anthem. His appeal was mostly ignored. Police in riot gear stood outside the stadium.

A bus taking Armenian journalists to the stadium was pelted with stones by Turkish fans, but there were no injuries or broken windows.

After the game, Sarkisian told reporters: "Both sides have achieved a lot and this is the evidence."

He also said Armenia was taking all opinions into account but was pressing ahead with its reconciliation agenda. He was referring to fierce opposition from some Armenian groups, including sectors of the powerful Diaspora.

Gul sounded a similar note.

"Try and remember two years ago and you will see the distance that we have covered in relations," Gul said. "What's important here is to make the region into a region of cooperation."

Earlier, Turkish diplomats who attended a meeting between Gul and Sarkisian quoted the Turkish president as saying: "We're not writing history, we're making history."

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey of Switzerland, along with the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia, also attended the match. All three participated in last weekend's signing in Switzerland of the agreement, which needs to be approved by the parliaments of both countries.

The deepest dispute is over history and has yet to be resolved: Armenia and many historians allege that Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenians early in the last century, a charge that Turkey denies. The countries have agreed to set up a commission to study the issue, though they are unlikely to give much ground on their positions.

Police intensified security ahead of Wednesday night's match for fear of protests from Turkish nationalists who oppose reconciliation with the country's eastern neighbor. Both teams have already been knocked out of the World Cup qualifying, so neither can deliver a killer blow to the other's athletic hopes. Turkey won the first game against Armenia 2-0 in Yerevan in September 2008.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned against "provocations that might come from people who desire to abuse the process between Turkey and Armenia."

The agreement has strong support in the two countries' parliaments but faces stiff opposition from nationalists. Turkey has said it would send the agreement to parliament next week. It was signed only after U.S. diplomats helped to resolve a last-minute hitch.

A day after the deal was signed on Saturday, Erdogan repeated a demand that Armenia withdraw from the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia controls the enclave in Azerbaijan, which is inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians. Turkey, in a show of solidarity with ally Azerbaijan, sealed its border with Armenia in response to the country's invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993.

Azerbaijan, a regional oil and gas power, has criticized the Turkish-Armenian deal, saying it aggravates the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A group of Azeri lawmakers were to meet Erdogan on Wednesday to express their concerns.

Turkish and Azerbaijani flag stickers were pasted on dustbins, electricity poles and billboards surrounding the stadium in Bursa. Street peddlers sold Turkish and Azerbaijani flags.

Virtually all flags inside the stadium were Turkish. One fan unfolded an Azeri flag and briefly held it up.

FIFA — world football's Zurich-based governing body — earlier contacted Turkey's Football Association and asked it to ensure that Azeri flags were not flown inside the stadium, in line with FIFA's stance against political interference and provocative acts.

"The governor was ordered to prevent fans from entering the stadium with Azeri flags," said Mahmut Ozgener, head of Turkey's football association. "FIFA is very sensitive about political issues."

Ozgener also said that football is instrumental in "opening a new era between Turkey and Armenia."

The Turkish-Armenian deal also faces opposition from groups in the powerful Armenian Diaspora, which insists that Turkey accept that the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians during the final days of the Ottoman Empire amounts to genocide. Turkey says the number is inflated and that many died on both sides during a chaotic period.

Still, the agreement could benefit Turkey in its long-standing bid to become a member of the European Union.

In its annual progress report on that effort Wednesday, the bloc urged Turkey to boost its chances by speeding up reforms, but EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn welcomed the accord.

"I'm encouraged by the historic steps Turkey and Armenia have just taken toward normalizing their relations. This process should now lead to full normalization as soon as possible," Rehn said.


Associated Press Writer Avet Demourian in Bursa contributed to this report.