PARIS - For the first time since World War I, the leaders of Germany and France held a joint ceremony on Wednesday to commemorate the end of the conflict, saying it is now time to celebrate their countries' reconciliation and friendship.

"French-German friendship is sealed with blood," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said under the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his side.

Together they laid a wreath of flowers at the tomb and symbolically relit the perpetual flame above it to mark the 91st anniversary of the end of World War I.

"This small flame is also ... the flame of hope," Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy honoured Lazare Ponticelli, who died last year at age 110, the last known French veteran of the First World War, which had torn Europe apart.

"Madame chancellor, you have made a historic gesture," Sarkozy said of Merkel's decision to join him, despite Germany's defeat in the war.

The bold departure from traditional Armistice Day commemorations came two days after Sarkozy travelled to Germany to help fete the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"We will never forget to what point the French suffered because of the Germans in the first half of the 20th century," Merkel said. Still, "One must learn to rise above one's history" and "there is a force that can help us: the force of reconciliation."

She noted that France and Germany are now allies that use the same currency, helped create the European Union and now both have troops fighting in the U.S.-led war against Taliban in Afghanistan.

Tens of millions of civilians and soldiers were killed during the 1914-1918 war between Germany and allied nations, including France, Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada.

With evident emotion, Sarkozy and Merkel listened as the French Army Choir sang the French and German national anthems. Together, they reviewed troops posted around the Arc de Triomph at the top of the Champs-Elysees Avenue. Some 2,000 French and German youths took part in daylong ceremonies.

Other nations that fought in World War I, notably Britain and Belgium, also marked Armistice Day.

People across Britain paused for the traditional two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. - as did the Bank of England, which interrupted its news conference on its quarterly economic update, an event closely watched by financial markets.

At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 - the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - an armistice ended fighting on the Western Front, signed by the Allies and Germany in a railroad car outside Compiegne, north of Paris.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II laid a wreath of poppies on the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, where a service commemorating the war dead was held.

"We remember, with grief, the gas and the mud, the barbed wire, the bombardment, the terror... and with gratitude, the courage and sacrifice," John Hall, the Dean of Westminster, said while opening the service.

In Belgium, which saw some of the fiercest and bloodiest trench warfare, King Albert II led the royal family and government officials in a solemn commemoration in Brussels at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

In Ieper - a Belgian municipality better known to soldiers by its French name, Ypres - tens of thousands of people lined the narrow streets of the town left in ruins during the war and now a world symbol of peace. Ceremonies were held around the Menen Gate war memorial, where the names of 55,000 missing soldiers are engraved.


AP writers Constant Brand in Belgium and Jennifer Quinn in London contributed to this report.

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