YEREVAN, Armenia - The presidents of Russia and France joined other leaders Friday at ceremonies commemorating the massacre of Armenians a century ago by Ottoman Turks, an event which still stirs bitter feelings as both sides argue over whether to call it genocide.
The annual April 24 commemorations mark the day when about 250 Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in what is regarded as the first step of the massacre. An estimated 1.5 million died in the slaughters, deportations, and forced marches that began in 1915 as Ottoman officials worried that the Christian Armenians would side with Russia, its enemy in World War I.
The event is widely viewed by historians as genocide but modern Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, vehemently rejects the characterization. It says that the toll has been inflated, and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest. On the eve of the centennial, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that his nation's ancestors never committed genocide.
The observances ended Friday night with a torchlight parade by an estimated 30,000 people from the capital's central square to the hilltop complex memorializing the deaths. Participants started the march by burning a Turkish flag.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande, and other dignitaries assembled in the morning at the memorial complex, called Tsitsernakaberd, overlooking the capital, Yerevan.
Each leader walked along the memorial with a single yellow rose and put it into the center of a wreath resembling a forget-me-not, a flower chosen as the symbol of the commemoration.
"We will never forget the tragedy that your people went through," Hollande said.
France is home to a sizeable Armenian community. Among the French Armenians at Yerevan was singer Charles Aznavour, 90, who was born in Paris to a family of massacre survivors.
For many Armenians, the anniversary is not only a moment of grief but also a reminder of the resilience of the nation.
"We feel a big pain today, historic pain but at the same time we feel a big historic strength," Nadezhda Antonyan, a teacher from Yerevan said on the sidelines of the ceremony.
Turkey recalled its ambassadors to Vienna and the Vatican this month after Austria and Pope Francis described the killings as genocide. The European Parliament has also triggered Turkey's ire by passing a non-binding resolution to commemorate "the centenary of the Armenian genocide."