ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Tens of thousands of Turks, vawing Azeri flags, rallied Sunday to mark the anniversary of a notorious attack that Azerbaijanis say killed hundreds of people during the 6-year war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin made an impassioned nationalist speech at the rally in Istanbul, estimated at between 20,000 and 50,000 participants, which underlined the deep tensions with neighboring Armenia, even though fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 1994.
Ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia drove Azerbaijani troops out of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s during the war that killed some 30,000 people and sent 1 million fleeing from their homes. A cease-fire was reached in 1994, but the final status of the enclave, whose self-proclaimed sovereignty is not recognized internationally, is unresolved. The dispute continues to damage both nations’ economies and the threat of renewed war hangs over the region.
The protesters, including members of labor unions and nationalist groups, filled Istanbul’s Taksim square Sunday to denounce Armenia and express solidarity with close Muslim ally Azerbaijan. Thousands of Turks also staged similar protests in Ankara and several other cities across Turkey.
Azerbaijani authorities say 613 Azerbaijanis were killed when Armenian troops rushed into the village of Khodzhaly on Feb. 26, 1992. The attack appalled Azerbaijanis and contributed to the resignation two weeks later of President Ayaz Mutalibov, whom the opposition said had not acted decisively against the Armenians. The attack is observed every year with rallies and speeches in Baku.
Armenian forces do not deny the attack, but say the death toll is exaggerated. Turkey and Azerbaijan has called for world recognition of the killings as a crime against “humanity.”
“Murderers, cowards spilled the blood of 613 people in Khodzhaly, including innocent women and children,” Sahin said in an address to the protesters in Istanbul. “This bloodshed will not remain unpunished.”
Some protesters in Istanbul shouted “Nagorno-Karabakh will be a grave for Armenians.”
Turkey and Armenia have been locked in a bitter dispute for decades over the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Efforts to normalize relations have been dealt a setback by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
A 2009 agreement between Turkey and Armenia, meant to open the way to diplomatic ties and the reopening of their border, foundered over Turkey’s demand that Armenian troops withdraw from the Armenian-occupied enclave Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 to protest Armenia’s war with Azerbajian.
Hopes for Western-backed rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia now seem ever more distant ahead of 2015 – the 100th anniversary of the Armenian killings.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, which they call the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey disputes this, saying the death toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.