Hand of friendship is withdrawn as Turkey and Armenia squabble

 

A monument built to celebrate friendship between Turkey and Armenia is being dismantled, in a gesture that shows how much an attempted rapprochement between the two nations has stalled.

The statue, in the eastern Turkish city of Kars, depicts two figures emerging from a single mass, signifying common ground between nations with a bitter and difficult history, and was commissioned in 2006 to commemorate cautiously improving ties between them. The countries have been in dispute over the mass killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians during the First World War which Armenia, along with most of the rest of the world, says was genocide but which Turkey refuses to acknowledge as such. Ankara insists that deaths occurred on both sides during a situation of civil war.

A crane has been brought to dismantle the 35-metre statue and yesterday the head from one of the figures, which alone weighed 19 tonnes, was removed. The demolition process is expected to take more than a week. "I am really sorry, sorry on behalf of Turkey," said Mehmet Aksoy, creator of the monument "They can demolish it, we will re-make it."

Tentative efforts at mending ties between Turkey and Armenia started a few years ago, and in 2008 negotiations began to open the long-sealed border between the countries, which would have boosted trade and commerce and proved especially useful to landlocked Armenia. Last year talks were abandoned, and rhetoric between the two has become increasingly tense.

The monument has always been controversial, with strong objections to its construction raised by Turkish nationalists and Azerbaijan, Turkey's regional ally, which is engaged in a low-level conflict with Armenia over a disputed territory. It was never fully completed, with the hand of one of the figures remaining detached.

In an especially inflammatory touch, preparations for the removal of the monument began on Sunday, the date when Armenians commemorate the genocide each year. Turkish artists campaigned to save the monument, while in a sign of the passions it has unleashed, Bedri Baykam, a Turkish artist who gave a speech in support of the monument, was stabbed last week.

Kars, in the far east of Turkey near the closed border with Armenia, alternated between Russian and Ottoman control in the 19th entury, when it was home to a significant Armenian population. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, visited the city in January and said the monument was a "monstrosity" and "weird", and was offensively close to the tomb of an 11th-century Islamic scholar. Turkey goes to the polls in early June and Erdogan critics say such comments are aimed at winning support among nationalist segments of the population.

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