NICOSIA - Turkey hopes to open its border with Armenia by the end of the year under a protocol to establish diplomatic ties, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Tuesday.
The two countries, which have no diplomatic ties and a history of animosity stemming from the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One, announced late on Monday they would sign accords within six weeks under a plan to end a century of hostility.
If everything goes as planned, if mutual steps are taken, the borders could be opened around New Year, Davutoglu told Turkish NTV television during a visit to northern Cyprus.
The plan to normalize ties was announced in April, but Monday's statement marked the first real progress.
Under the agreement, both sides would hold domestic consultations before signing two protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and development of bilateral relations.
The protocols would have to be ratified by parliaments of the two countries.
In his first comment on the issue, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stressed that the accords would not go into effect until the Turkish parliament had approved them.
Reopening the border and establishing ties with Armenia would increase predominantly Muslim Turkey's influence in the region and aid its faltering bid to join the European Union.
The bloc has long asked candidate member Turkey to normalize ties with its neighbor and restoring diplomatic ties would also be beneficial for regional security.
The EU on Tuesday welcomed steps to establish bilateral ties and urged the two countries to implement the protocols rapidly.
This agreement should contribute to peace and stability in the South Caucasus, EU commissioner for external relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner and EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said in a statement.
Diplomatic ties would also give landlocked Armenia, reeling from the global financial crisis, access to Turkish and European markets.
TURKEY DENIES GENOCIDE
Anticipation has been growing ahead of a planned visit by Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan to Turkey on October 14, when he is due to attend the return leg of a World Cup qualifying football match between the two countries.
Sarksyan has said he will not travel to the game, the first leg of which Turkish President Abdullah Gul watched last year in Yerevan, unless the border has reopened or there are clear signs it is about to open.
Turkey rejects Armenian claims the World War One killings amounted to genocide, and says many people were killed on both sides of the conflict.
Turkey closed the frontier in 1993 in solidarity with Muslim ally Azerbaijan, which was fighting Armenian-backed separatists in the breakaway mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The normalization of ties with Armenia, which is strongly backed by the United States as a step to improve security in the region, risks angering Azerbaijan, an energy supplier to the West and a key source of gas supplies for the planned Nabucco pipeline.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, with Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces still facing off over a tense front line 15 years after agreeing a ceasefire.
Davutoglu spoke on the telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday regarding normalizing ties with Armenia as well as Ankara's desire to speed up a solution to Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish diplomats said.
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler; writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; editing by Andrew Roche)