Turkey hits back over French bill

 

Turkey has retaliated against France after MPs there passed a bill to make it a crime to deny the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turks amounted to genocide.

Ankara ordered its ambassador home and halted official contacts, including some military co-operation.

The measures announced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan included suspending joint military manoeuvres and restricting French military flights.

Turkey, a Nato member, is a strategic ally of France and valued trading partner, and the moves diminish ties at a particularly crucial time. Paris and Ankara are both deeply involved in international issues from the uprising in Syria to Afghanistan.

"We are recalling our ambassador in Paris to Ankara for consultations," Erdogan said.

"As of now, we are cancelling bilateral level political, economic and military activities," he said. "We are suspending all kinds of political consultations with France" and "bilateral military co-operation, joint manoeuvres are cancelled as of now."

It was clear long before the vote - easily passed with a show of hands - that France was on a collision course with Turkey. Ankara had threatened to remove Ambassador Tahsin Burcuoglu if French MPs did not desist and warned of "grave consequences" to political and economic ties.

Turkey vehemently rejects the term "genocide" for the First World War era-mass killings of Armenians, saying the issue should be left to historians. It contends that France is damaging freedom of expression and that President Nicolas Sarkozy is on a vote-getting mission before April presidential elections.

An estimated 500,000 Armenians live in France and many have pressed to raise the legal statute regarding the massacres to the same level as the Holocaust by punishing denial of genocide.

"We must not mix freedom of opinion with propaganda," conservative MP Patrick Devedjian, who is of Armenian origin, said in parliament.

France formally recognised the killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone denying that. The bill sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euro (£37,500) for those who deny or "outrageously minimise" the killings by Ottoman Turks, putting such action on a par with denial of the Holocaust.

In Washington, President Barack Obama has stopped short of calling the killings genocide.

"Our ancestors can finally rest in peace," said 75-year-old Maurice Delighazarian, standing outside France's National Assembly. He said his grandparents on both sides were among the victims of the 1915 massacre.

MPs denounced what they called Turkey's propaganda effort in a bid to sway them.

"Laws voted in this chamber cannot be dictated by Ankara," said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, an MP from the New Centre party, as Turks demonstrated outside the National Assembly ahead of the vote.

French authorities have stressed the importance of bilateral ties with Turkey and the key role it plays in sensitive strategic issues as a member of Nato, in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

However, Sarkozy has long opposed the entry into the European Union of mostly Muslim Turkey, putting a constant strain on the two nations' ties.

Turkish authorities have weighed in with caustic remarks about France's past. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has recalled France's colonial history in Algeria and a 1945 massacre there, as well as its role in Rwanda, where some have claimed a French role in the 1994 genocide.

"Those who do want to see genocide should turn around and look at their own dirty and bloody history," Erdogan said last weekend.

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