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By Alexandra Hudson and Hasmik Mkrtchyan
BURSA, Turkey (Reuters) - The presidents of Turkey and Armenia watched a World Cup football match side-by-side on Wednesday, in a show of unity meant to help defuse opposition to an agreement to reopen their border and restore relations.
Abdullah Gul and Armenia's Serzh Sarksyan shook hands and smiled to applause in the tightly-policed stadium, in a scene unthinkable before the two countries launched a peace process seen as bolstering Turkey's European Union membership ambitions.
White doves were released from the stands.
A peace deal signed in Zurich last week could help stabilise the south Caucasus with its vulnerable energy corridor and ease poverty-stricken Armenia's geographical isolation.
"We are not writing history. We are making history," Gul said in talks between the two delegations before the match, which passed without major incident and which Turkey won 2-0.
"Remember two years ago and just think how far we have come since then... what is important is to bring peace and stability to the whole region," Gul told reporters at a later reception.
Local fans waved red-and-white Turkish flags across the stadium. A small group of Armenians waved their national flag.
Big obstacles to a full rapprochement remain. Armenians accuse the Turks of genocide in 1915. Turkey strongly denies this, acknowledging thousands of Armenians were killed but saying this happened in fierce fighting in which many Ottoman Turks also died.
Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Yerevan in 2008 for the first leg of what was dubbed "soccer diplomacy" and the two countries signed a landmark peace accord on Saturday.
"Today's game was a good chance to see what has been done over this past year and what will be done for the fast ratification of the protocols," Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian told reporters at the reception. "It will open closed doors that had divided our two peoples."
It is deeply resisted by nationalists in both countries as well as by Turkey's close ally and oil and gas producer Azerbaijan. Turkish and Armenian parliaments must approve it.
"Today is a really historic day and I really wanted to be here," Sayat Tekir, an Armenian-born student living in Turkey, told Reuters. "The protocol signing was very important because there is still a lot of prejudice against Armenians in Turkey."
Several dozen Turkish nationalists held a demonstration against the peace accord, waving Turkish and Azerbaijan flags. They chanted: "we did not commit genocide, we defended the homeland" and "the people of Azerbaijan are not alone."
THORNY ISSUES
Neither team in the qualifier had a chance of making it to the World Cup finals but unprecedented security for the match underlined how much was at stake. Neither side wants to give ammunition to opponents of Armenian-Turkish normalisation.
The match at the 18,600-capacity stadium was by invitation only, with many of the guests police academy students. Some 1,500 police were on duty.
Special forces marksmen monitored the crowd from the roof of the stadium, scanning the stands with binoculars.
There were scuffles outside the stadium between police and a group of Turkish supporters without tickets before the match, prompting the police to spray them with pepper gas.
The game in Bursa, a former Ottoman imperial city, gave the presidents a chance to discuss thorny unresolved issues, including lands disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia and popular opinion polarised by genocide accusations.
Sarksyan is under intense pressure from nationalists at home and influential diaspora Armenians not to deal with Ankara until it acknowledges genocide.
"We are doing a good thing. We are taking steps that we believe are right," state-run Anatolian news agency reported Sarksyan as saying in talks between the delegations.
Endorsement of the agreement could ease Armenia's economic plight and strengthen Turkey's troubled EU membership bid.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said the protocols will be submitted to parliament next week, but many observers are sceptical there will be approval before progress on disputed territories, including Nagorno-Karabakh, to satisfy Azerbaijan.
Turkey cut ties and shut its border with Armenia in 1993 over an uprising in Karabakh by ethnic Armenians who also seized a swathe of Azeri land around the territory.
Fighting ended in Karabakh with a cease-fire in 1994 after 30,000 were killed. Talks are under way over a final settlement.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; writing by Daren Butler and Paul de Bendern; editing by Andrew Roche)

Reuters