News & Current Affairs

September 7, 2008

Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

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Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Thousands of Armenians lined the streets of the capital Yerevan Saturday, protesting the Turkish president who drove past in the first ever visit by a Turkish leader. Many held placards demanding justice for massacres that took place nearly 100 years ago.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Abdullah Gul arrived in Armenia to watch a Turkey vs. Armenia football World Cup qualifier game with President Serge Sarkisian that many hope will help the two countries overcome decades of antagonism rooted in Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians.

Gul is the first Turkish leader to set foot in Armenia since the ex-Soviet nation declared independence in 1991. The two neighbors have no diplomatic ties and their border has been closed since 1993.

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Ties have also suffered from Turkey’s opposition to Armenia‘s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

As Gul left the airport, the presidential motorcade drove along streets lined with thousands of people holding up placards, mostly in English and Armenian, that read: “We want justice,” “Turk admit your guilt,” and “1915 never again.”

Others held up names of places in Turkey from which their ancestors were forced to leave as the Ottoman Empire uprooted Armenian communities between 1915 and 1922.

Little progress is expected on the genocide issue or on Nagorno-Karabakh when Gul meets Sarkisian for talks just before the game — which Turkey is favored to win.

Still, the visit is a sign of a diplomatic thaw.

“I hope that (the visit) will help lift the obstacles that stand in the way of rapprochement between the two peoples and contribute to regional friendship and peace,” Gul said before his departure.

Gul’s decision to accept Armenia’s invitation to the match is linked to Turkey’s desire to carve out a regional peacemaker role amid tensions sparked by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia.

Turkey, a NATO member, has cause for alarm about how Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia might inspire its own separatist Kurds, or provoke Armenia to boost support for separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the wake of the Georgia conflict, Turkey proposed a regional grouping for stability in the Caucasus that would include Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“About a month ago, we all saw how conflicts that have remained unresolved threatened regional stability and peace in the Caucasus,” Gul said in reference to the Georgia crisis.

Armenia is the last of Turkey‘s neighbors with whom Ankara has failed to mend ties since the end of the Cold War. Turkey has gradually improved relations with old foes such as Greece, Bulgaria and Syria.

Improved ties with Armenia are likely to help lift strains on Turkey’s relations with other countries that have or plan to formally recognize the massacres as genocide.

In October, a measure that would have declared the Armenian deaths as genocide in the U.S. Congress was stopped after President George W. Bush’s administration warned relations with strategic ally Turkey would be damaged.

On the plane, Gul paid tribute to the Armenian president.

“President Sarkisian was brave in taking the opportunity of inviting me to this game,” he said.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara, in order to pressure Yerevan into ending the conflict. he move has hurt the economy of tiny, landlocked Armenia.

Armenia’s bitter ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey have resulted in the tiny country being excluded from strategic energy pipelines that connect Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia.

Armenians, supported by numerous scholars, claim an organized genocide was carried out in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and are pushing for the killings to be recognized as among history’s worst atrocities.

Turkey contends the 1.5 million death toll is wildly inflated. It also says the Armenians were killed or displaced in civil unrest during the chaos that surrounded the empire’s collapse.

Turkey has called for the establishment of a committee of scholars to study the WWI events in a bid to improve ties, but Armenia has declined to consider this until relations are forged.

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August 13, 2008

Palestinians say farewell to poet

Palestinians say farewell to poet

Palestinians are lining the streets of Ramallah, on the West Bank, for the funeral of poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Leading mourners, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described the poet and author as a hero for all Palestinians.

Darwish was one of the most influential cultural figures in recent Arab history, encapsulating the Palestinian longing for independence.

He died after open-heart surgery in Houston, Texas, on Saturday at the age of 67.

The ceremonies in Ramallah are expected to be the biggest funeral in the West Bank since that of Yasser Arafat in 2004.

Darwish’s body was flown back from the US to Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday where an honor guard saluted as Palestinian Liberation Army officers carried the flag-draped coffin from the plane.

Military helicopter

Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Nayef attended the ceremony on behalf of King Abdullah.

The coffin was then taken by military helicopter to the government compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah.

Mr Abbas led mourners and read a eulogy to the poet.

Afterwards, the coffin was to be taken in procession to Darwish’s grave near the Palace of Culture about 4km (2.5 miles) away.

Mahmoud Darwish

Darwish won many international prizes for his work

People of all backgrounds in the West Bank feel they had a personal connection to the poet and take pride in a man who told their story in a way they could not.

Darwish was a national icon, whose work was often based on his experiences of life in exile and under occupation.

“He symbolizes the Palestinian memory,” one Palestinian mourner.

“He intended to convey a message: in the end we are all human beings and we have to work collectively for the sake of humanity.”

Thousands would flock to his recitals. His poems were transformed into popular songs and used in political speeches, and the words he wrote now form part of Palestinian daily life, our correspondent says.

Fierce criticism

Nor was he shy of talking of his people’s shortcomings.

Darwish penned fierce criticism of the divisions among Palestinians, believing, in some ways, what they were doing to themselves was worse than anything others had done to them.

He also penned the famous speech Arafat delivered at the United Nations in 1974: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

There is little doubt his work, not just on the Palestinian cause, but on love and hope and death, will endure across the Arab world, our correspondent says.


How will you remember Mahmoud Darwish? Will you attend a commemoration service?

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