Turkey slams France over genocide debate

AP News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2011 2:26 PM
Turkey slams France over genocide debate

Turkey responded to French genocide allegations with a charge of its own Friday, accusing France of committing genocide during its colonial occupation of Algeria.

French lawmakers passed a bill Thursday making it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks constitute genocide.

The deepening acrimony between two strategic allies and trading partners could have repercussions far beyond the settling of accounts over some of the bloodiest episodes of the past century.

Turkey was already frustrated by French opposition to its stalled European Union bid, and hopes for Western-backed rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia seem ever more distant ahead of 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian killings.

The bill strikes at the heart of national honor in Turkey, which maintains there was no systematic campaign to kill Armenians and that many Turks also died during the chaotic disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

The French bill still needs Senate approval, but after it passed the lower house, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan halted bilateral political and economic contacts, suspended military cooperation and ordered his country's ambassador home for consultations.

Turkey and France worked closely together during NATO's operation against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and had been coordinating policy on Syria and Afghanistan.

"What the French did in Algeria was genocide," Erdogan said Friday in a heavily personal speech, laced with criticism of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

He alleged that beginning in 1945, about 15 percent of the population of Algeria was massacred by the French. He also said Algerians were burned in ovens.

"They were mercilessly martyred," he said.

Erdogan appeared to be referring to allegations that the French burned the dead in ovens after a 1945 uprising that began in the Algerian town of Setif. Algerians say some 45,000 people may have died. French figures say up to 20,000.

The French bill's passage "is a clear example of how racism, discrimination and anti-Muslim sentiment have reached new heights in France and in Europe," Erdogan said. "French President Sarkozy's ambition is to win an election based on promoting animosity against Turks and Muslims."

France holds presidential elections in April.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the French vote was comparable to attempts by Mideast rulers to stifle free speech.

"Europe has philosophically and ideologically reverted to the Middle Ages," Davutoglu said at a conference of Turkish ambassadors in Ankara, the capital.

The French Foreign Ministry said the statements from Turkey were unhelpful and below the belt.

"We deplore the recourse to excess and to personal attacks which are not at the level of the stakes or the mutual interest of our ties," a ministry statement said.

Paris "assumes with lucidity and transparency its duty of memory in the face of tragedies which marked its history," the statement said, an allusion to France's admission that the state had a role in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps, and apparently a veiled nod to its past in Algeria, which gained independence in 1962 after a brutal seven-year war.

France formally recognized the Armenian killings as genocide in 2001, but had previously provided no penalty for anyone refuting that. The bill sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of euro45,000 ($59,000) for those who deny or "outrageously minimize" the killings, putting such action on par with denial of the Holocaust.

France is committed to human rights and respect for "historical memory," Sarkozy said in Prague, where he was attending the funeral of Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became president of the Czech Republic.

"France doesn't give lessons to anyone, but France also doesn't plan on taking them," Sarkozy said in a clip shown on France's LCI television. "I respect the convictions of our Turkish friends _ it's a grand country, a grand civilization _ and they must respect ours. To cede on one's convictions is always cowardice, and one always ends up by paying for cowardice."

Most historians contend the Ottoman killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians constituted the first genocide of the 20th century. But the issue is dicey for any government that wants a strong alliance with Turkey, a rising power. In Washington, President Barack Obama has stopped short of calling the killings genocide.

The Armenian National Committee of America said the French vote "reinforces the growing international consensus _ and the mounting pressure on Turkey _ for a truthful and just resolution of the Armenian Genocide."