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By Zerin Elci
ZURICH (Reuters) - Turkey and Armenia are due to sign a peace accord on Saturday to end a century of hostility stemming from the World War One mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman forces.
A decades-old dispute between Turkey's ally Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh hangs over a final settlement. Talks between Azeri and Armenian leaders over the region ended without result on Friday.
Turkey and Armenia are under U.S. and EU pressure to sign the Swiss-mediated peace accord in a ceremony to be attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other dignitaries.
The deal, first announced in August, sets a timetable for restoring diplomatic ties and opening the joint border. Turkish officials said it would be signed on schedule. Armenian officials were not immediately available for comment.
The accord must then be approved by the Turkish and Armenian parliaments in the face of opposition from nationalists on both sides and a powerful Armenian diaspora which insists Turkey acknowledge the killings as genocide.
An agreement would boost European Union candidate Turkey's diplomatic clout in the volatilie South Caucasus, a transit corridor for oil and gas to the West. Ankara is keen to be seen as a stabilising force in the strategically important region.
"This is a sign that Turkey is changing and is now dealing with things of its past and that it's a valuable partner for the West," said Hugh Pope, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group and author of books on Turkey.
"Not having a relationship with Armenia hobbles Turkey's role in the Caucasus," said Pope, adding the thaw would also benefit Ankara's troubled quest to join the European Union.
HURDLES TO COME
Turkey cut ties and shut its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan which was then fighting a losing battle against Armenian separatists in Karabakh.
Ties between Muslim Turkey and Christian Armenia are also strained by what Armenian and many Western historians say was the mass deportation and deliberate killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War One.
Turkey says Armenians were among many thousands killed in the chaos as the Ottoman Empire fought off Russian, British, French and Greek armies and attempted to put down an Arab revolt before eventually imploding under the strain. But Turkey denies the killings of Armenians amounted to genocide.
The issue, until recently taboo in Turkey, has damaged ties between Ankara and Washington, where Armenian-Americans have long lobbied for a law to name the massacres a genocide.
Although landlocked Armenia stands to make big gains, opening its impoverished economy to trade and investment, Armenia's leader Serzh Sarksyan faces protests at home and from the huge Armenian diaspora, which sees the thaw with suspicion.
Armenians demand that Turkey acknowledge the 1915 killings as genocide, a defining element in Armenian national identity.
About 10,000 people rallied in Yerevan on Friday against the accords, waving Armenian flags and holding posters saying: "No to Turkish preconditions!," "No to concessions to Turkey!"
Turkey and Armenia will set up an international commission of historians to study the events under the deal, which Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian are due to sign at 5:00 p.m..
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this year he would not open its border with Armenia until Yerevan ended what he called its occupation of Azerbaijan.
Violence erupted in Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan's internationally recognised borders, in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union headed towards its 1991 collapse.
Ethnic Armenian forces, backed by Armenia, drove out Azeri troops and took control of seven districts of Azerbaijan adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. Some 30,000 people were killed.
(Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; editing by Philippa Fletcher)