Tens of thousands of Turks and Azerbaijanis were out in force in Istanbul to stage what they called “an unprecedented massive rally” to mark the 20th anniversary of one of the most tragic massacres in modern history.
The crowd overflowed from İstanbul's central Taksim Square, chanting slogans such as “We will not forget Khojaly.”
The mass protest is by far the largest to have been staged outside Azerbaijan to remember the 613 civilians killed in a single February night two decades ago that still haunts azerbaijanis in their traumatic and troubled history of war, violence and bloodshed with neighboring Armenia.
The demonstration marked what organizers hope will be a watershed moment to call on the international community to avoid turning a blind eye to the massacre. They say it is a consciousness raising effort to call attention to the tragedy that has largely gone unnoticed over the last two decades.
Turks and Azerbaijanis all around the world also staged protests and rallies to remember the victims of Khojaly. Tens of thousands of people also marched through Azerbaijan's capital on Sunday to commemorate the Khojaly massacre. President Ilham Aliyev led the march in Baku, which ended at a monument to the victims of the Khojaly massacre. Officials said 60,000 people took part. Tens of thousands also turned out for rallies in Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan.
Turkish Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin made an impassioned speech at the rally, which organizers said was attended by an estimated 100,000, underlining the deep tensions with neighboring Armenia, even though fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh ended with a 1994 cease-fire. The final political status of the enclave has not been worked out yet.
The protesters, including members of labor unions, nationalist groups and Turkish-Azerbaijani associations, filled Taksim Square to denounce Armenia and express solidarity with Turkey's ally Azerbaijan. Thousands of Turks, waving Azerbaijani flags, also staged similar protests in Ankara and several other cities across Turkey.
Azerbaijani authorities say 613 Azerbaijanis were brutally killed and hundreds are still missing when Armenian troops rushed into the village of Khojaly on Feb. 26, 1992. The attack appalled Azerbaijanis and became a symbol of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan.
Armenians have not denied the attack, but insist the death toll is exaggerated. Turkey and Azerbaijan have called for world recognition of the killings as a crime against humanity.
International rights groups have been uncertain about the exact death toll, but condemn the killings and consider them the worst massacre of the war that broke out between the two neighbors as the Soviet Union began to fall apart.
"Murderers, cowards spilled the blood of 613 people, including innocent women and children," Şahin said in an address to the protesters in İstanbul. "This bloodshed will not remain unpunished."
Şahin's remarks illustrated a prevailing sense of anger reigning among demonstrators who chanted slogans against Armenia, whose armies currently occupy 20 percent of neighboring Azerbaijan. Fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh has killed at least 30,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis.
A 2009 agreement between Turkey and Armenia, meant to open the way to diplomatic ties and the reopening of their border, foundered over Turkey's demand that Armenian troops withdraw from the Armenian-occupied enclave in Azerbaijan.
“Only Turkey supports us; 600-700 had been murdered in Khojaly, but the international community is still silent on the massacre,” an Azerbaijani woman who attended the rally said.
İstanbul police dispatched heavy security to the French Consulate on İstiklal Street, where demonstrators were marching, fearing possible attacks on the building. The French National Assembly recently endorsed a bill making it a crime to deny the World War I-era killings of Armenians constituted genocide. Turkey and Azerbaijan protested the bill, claiming that it restricts freedom of speech.