By Paul de Bendern, Reuters
YEREVAN — Turkish President Abdullah Gul flew into neighboring Armenia on Saturday to attend a soccer match he said could help end almost a century of mutual hostility and aid security in the broader Caucasus region.
Attack helicopters escorted Gul’s jet on its arrival, and police and demonstrators lined the traffic-free streets as his motorcade sped through downtown Yerevan.
Gul is the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia. Ankara and Yerevan have no diplomatic ties but a relationship haunted by the question of whether ethnic Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks during World War One were victims of systematic genocide.
Gul was invited to attend Saturday’s match at the Hrazdan stadium by his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarksyan, who called for closer ties in a region rocked last month by Russia’s war with Georgia. The brief conflict raised fears for the security of energy supplies from the Caspian Sea to western Europe.
Departing Ankara, Gul said he hoped the first match between the two national sides would aid a “rapprochement.”
“This match is important beyond being the first match between the Turkish and Armenian national teams,” Gul told a news conference. “It has a significance that will present important opportunities.”
“I hope today’s match will contribute to removing barriers to the rapprochement of two peoples with a common history, and contribute to regional peace and stability.”
Turkey has never opened an embassy in Armenia and in 1993 Ankara closed their land border in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan, a Turkic-speaking ally which was fighting Armenian-backed separatists over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
But Russia’s decision last month to send its forces into Georgia, an ex-Soviet state which borders both Armenia and Turkey, has convinced many that it is time for Ankara and Yerevan to put their differences aside.
“We saw a month ago how unresolved issues in the Caucasus threaten peace in the region,” Gul said. “Making this trip at such a time makes it especially important.”