Armenians say the Turkish prime minister's statement calling 1915 deaths "inhumane" didn't go far enough and demanded recognition of genocide and compensation.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan offered what the government said were unprecedented condolences on Wednesday to the grandchildren of Armenians killed in World War One by Ottoman soldiers.

In a statement issued on the eve of the 99th anniversary Thursday of the deeply contested deaths, Erdogan unexpectedly described the events of 1915 as "inhumane", using more conciliatory language than has often been the case for Turkish leaders.

Turkish government officials said it was the first time a Turkish prime minister had offered such explicit condolences and described the statement as a historic step.

'We wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.' - Turkey Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

Erdogan's words, however, were dismissed by Armenians.

 "I don't understand why Turkey doesn't admit [the] Armenian genocide …. We want a recognition and a compensation," Margaret, a member of the Youth Union of Armenian Revolutionary Federation, said in the country's capital city of Yerevan.

The exact nature and scale of what happened during fighting that started in 1915 is highly contentious and continues to sour relations between Turkey and Armenia, a former Soviet republic.

Turkey accepts that many Armenians died in clashes, but denies that up to 1.5 million were killed and that this constituted an act of genocide — a term used by many Western historians and foreign parliaments.

Earlier in April, for example, a U.S. Senate committee resolution branded the massacre of Armenians as genocide.

Criticizes statement

Following the statement Wednesday, Armenians gathered in Yerevan for an annual candle procession to mark mass killings anniversary. People were holding up Armenian flags and marching through the streets with candles.

Kiro Manoyan, director of the International Secretariat of Armenian Revolutionary Federation Bureau, a group also known as Dashnaktsutyun, criticized Ergogan's statement.

"It is true that it is an unprecedented act," he said. "But it is not only far short of what we expect but also at some point insulting and cynical, because the way Prime Minister Erdogan talks is as if there was a national catastrophe, national calamity. There were people, Armenians and others who died, and he says, 'I express my condolences.'"

Erdogan's statement — released unusually in nine different languages, including Armenian — repeated previous calls for dialogue between the two countries, and the setting up of a historical commission to probe events surrounding the killings.

"It is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren," he said.

Conciliatory tone

"Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences — such as relocation — during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes … towards one another."

Although striking a conciliatory tone, Erdogan reiterated a long-held Turkish position that the deaths of millions of people during the violence of the period should be remembered "without discriminating as to religion or ethnicity."

Turkey is primarily a Muslim country, while Armenia is Christian.

"Using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey and turning this issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible," he added.

Armenia has up to now declined the offer for a joint historical commission, as it regards the alleged genocide as an established historical fact and believes Turkey would use such a commission to press its own version of events.

Armenia accuses the Ottoman authorities at the time of systematically massacring large numbers of Armenians, then deporting many more, including women, children and the elderly and infirm in terrible conditions on so-called death marches.


  • An earlier version of this story carried a photograph that wrongly identified Turkish President Abdullah Gul as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
    Apr 24, 2014 12:30 PM ET