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Armenians to share $17m payout for Ottoman massacre

Armenians are stepping up their campaign to win formal classification of the murders as an act of genocide. Turkey has always denied there was a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing against Armenians, saying they were casualties of partisan fighting and of a political vacuum during the final days of the Ottoman Empire.

Ankara says that as many as 300,000 Armenians, and at least as many Turks, died during civil strife in eastern Turkey during the First World War. Last month the authorities finally allowed the issue to be debated on Turkish soil by historians at an academic conference. But the organisers had to side-step two legal orders banning it by rearranging the venue.

The California settlement will be administered in France, which also has many expatriate Armenian communities and which was one of the first countries to recognise the murders as genocide. AXA's headquarters are in France and the company operates in the US through subsidiaries.

Under the settlement, AXA agreed to donate several million dollars to various France-based Armenian charities. It will also contribute $11m toward a fund to pay valid claims of heirs of policyholders with AXA Group subsidiaries that did business in the Turkish Ottoman Empire before 1915.

The AXA case was the second lawsuit of its kind to be settled in US courts, although the United States, along with Turkey, does not officially recognise the deaths as genocide. In February, New York Life agreed to pay $20m to descendants of its Armenian policyholders killed in 1915.

Mark Geragos, an Armenian descendant who was a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said: "The AXA and New York Life settlements are important building blocks not only toward seeking financial recovery for the losses resulting from the Armenian genocide but also in our ultimate goal, which is for Turkey and the US to officially acknowledge the genocide."

This month, Turkey launched EU membership talks which are expected to last at least a decade. Despite criticism of the stance taken by Ankara on the issue, EU member states did not seek to make recognition of the Armenian case as genocide a condition of beginning negotiations on joining the bloc.

The failure to acknowledge the genocide has also bedevilled Turkey's relations with its neighbour, Armenia. Turkey shut its border with Armenia in 1993, angry at the Armenian separatist forces fighting for independence from Azerbaijan in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

For Armenians, the behaviour of the Young Turks, the dominant party in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, in systematically arranging the deportation and killing of 1.5 million Armenians, is central to their national self image. They say persecutions continued with varying intensity until 1923 when the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist and was replaced by the Republic of Turkey.

Ankara angrily rejects the claim of a planned genocide, but some EU politicians still want Turkey to recognise the killings as genocide before Ankara is allowed to join the EU.