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France Armenia Genocide Bill Sparks Controversy In Turkey

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FRANCE ARMENIA GENOCIDE BILL
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a joint press conference with the Chairman of the National Transitional Council of Libya in Istanbul on December 17, 2011. (MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey's prime minister on Saturday sharply criticized France for a bill that would make it a crime to deny the World War I-era mass killing of Armenians was genocide.

Saying France should investigate what he claimed was its own "dirty and bloody history" in Algeria and Rwanda, Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted Turkey would respond "through all kinds of diplomatic means."

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks as their Empire collapsed, an event many international experts regard as genocide and that France recognized as such in 2001. Turkish leaders reject the term, arguing that the toll is inflated, that there were deaths on both sides and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

On Dec. 22, the lower house of French Parliament will debate a proposal that would make denying that the massacre was genocide punishable by up to a year in prison and euro45,000 ($58,500) in fines, putting it on par with Holocaust denial, which was banned in the country in 1990.

Erdogan lashed out at France during a joint news conference with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil – the chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council – saying there were reports that France was responsible for the deaths of 45,000 people in Algeria in 1945 and for the massacre of up to 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994.

"No historian, no politician can see genocide in our history," Erdogan said. "Those who do want to see genocide should turn around and look at their own dirty and bloody history."

"The French National Assembly should shed light on Algeria, it should shed light on Rwanda," he said, in his first news conference since recovering from surgery three weeks ago.

France had troops in Rwanda, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame has accused the country of doing little to stop the country's genocide.

There was no immediate reaction from France. Ties between the two countries are already strained by French President Nicolas Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

Erdogan's criticism comes a day after an official said the Turkish leader had written to Sarkozy warning of grave consequences if the Armenian genocide bill is adopted. A Turkish diplomat said Turkey would withdraw its ambassador to France is the law is passed.

"I hope that the (French Parliament) steps back from the error of misrepresenting history and of punishing those who deny the historic lies," Erdogan said. "Turkey will stand against this intentional, malicious, unjust and illegal attempt through all kinds of diplomatic means."

Erdogan called the proposed bill a "populist" act, suggesting it was aimed at winning the votes of Armenian-French in elections in France next year.

A Turkish parliamentary delegation is scheduled to travel to France on Sunday to lobby French legislators against the bill.

Turkey has long argued that parliaments should not be left the task of deciding whether the killings constituted genocide, insisting on the creation of a joint independent committee of historians to look into the events that started in 1915.

Several countries have recognized the killings as genocide, including Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Russia, Canada, Lebanon, Belgium, Greece, Italy, the Vatican, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Poland, Lithuania and Cyprus.

In 2007, a Swiss court convicted a Turkish politician under its anti-racism law and fined him for denying that the killings of Armenians was genocide. The case caused diplomatic tensions between Switzerland and Turkey.