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Making history: old foes unite at football match

Turkish and Armenian leaders put on show of unity after restoring relations

Ahead of a World Cup football match, the presidents of Turkey and Armenia exchanged a warm handshake – a gesture unthinkable only a few years ago for two peoples divided over a century by rancour rooted in the First World War killings of Armenians.

The attendance of the Turkey's Abdullah Gul and the Armenian leader, Serzh Sarksyan, at the match was a show of unity that was meant to help defuse opposition to a deal re-opening their border and restoring relations. "We are not writing history. We are making history," Mr Gul said.

Armenians accuse the Turks of genocide. Turkey acknowledges that many thousands of Armenians were killed but insists that Ottoman Turks also died in large numbers in fierce fighting.

Mr Gul visited Mr Yerevan last year for the first leg of what has been called "football diplomacy" and the countries signed a peace accord at the weekend. The deal could help stabilise the south Caucasus with its energy corridor and ease Armenia's geographical isolation.

But it is resisted by nationalists in both countries and by Azerbaijan, a Turkish ally and oil and gas producer. Both parliaments must approve it. Sayat Tekir, an Armenian-born student in Turkey, said on the way to the match: "Today is a really historic day and I really wanted to be here. There has definitely been a new openness in Turkish-Armenian relations over the last decade. We can also discuss history and 1915, which we couldn't do before."

Nationalists in Bursa protesting against the peace accord held a banner reading: "the protocol of betrayal is unacceptable" and chanted "we did not commit genocide, we defended the homeland" and "the people of Azerbaijan are not alone".

The unprecedented security at the 18,600-capacity stadium underlined what was at stake. Neither side wants to give ammunition to the opponents of Armenian-Turkish normalisation. The game was by invite only. Many of the spectators were police academy students. Play began after Turkish fans booed as an announcer read out the Armenian line-up. Some fans released white doves in a gesture of peace that drew applause. Earlier a bus taking Armenian journalists to the stadium was pelted with stones by Turkish fans.

Turkey's Halil Altintop scored with a header in the 16th minute and Servet Cetin fired the ball into the Armenian net in the 28th minute to make it 2-0.

The game in Bursa will give the presidents a chance to discuss some of the thornier issues and potential pitfalls surrounding the protocols, including lands disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia as well as popular opinion polarised by genocide accusations.

Mr Sarksyan is under pressure from nationalists at home and, particularly, from the powerful Armenian diaspora, to not deal with Turkey unless they acknowledge the Armenian genocide.

Endorsing the agreement will ease Armenia's economic plight and could strengthen Turkey's bid to join the EU. It may also help to achieve an opening of Turkey's eastern borders extending to Syria, Iran and Iraq.