WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Saturday marked the World War One-era massacre of Armenians by Turkish forces, calling it one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, but avoiding any mention of “genocide.”
Turkey objects to the killings being labeled “genocide” and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Obama’s remarks took into consideration “the sensitivities” of his country. But a U.S.-based Armenian group said it was disappointed in Obama.
“On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that 95 years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began. In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire,” Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.
His remarks came as Armenia marked the 95th anniversary of the World War One killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, and against a backdrop of failed peace with Turkey and fresh saber rattling with enemy Azerbaijan.
A deal between Turkey and Armenia to establish diplomatic ties and reopen their border collapsed on Thursday when Armenia suspended ratification over Turkish demands that it first make peace with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Obama used the term genocide as a presidential candidate, but not since becoming president in January 2009.
He said the 1915 massacre must not be repeated, but carefully avoided getting entangled in the debate over whether Turkey was responsible for genocide against the Armenians.
Turkey was infuriated in March when a House of Representatives committee voted on a nonbinding “genocide” resolution over the killings. The full House has not voted on the measure and it is not clear whether it could pass.
U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton has said the Obama administration opposes the House measure.
Obama said that he is “encouraged by the dialogue among Turks and Armenians, and within Turkey itself, regarding this painful history.”
The House panel vote had appeared to jeopardize progress by Armenia and Turkey to normalize relations, one key to stability in the south Caucasus, a region crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines to Europe.
Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Washington and has said he will not return until Ankara gets assurances about the fate of the resolution, which the Obama administration opposed.
The U.S. aerospace and defense industry -- including Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co, Raytheon Co, United Technologies Corp and Northrop Grumman Corp -- opposed the measure and warned in March that it could jeopardize U.S. exports to Turkey, rupture U.S.-Turkish relations and put American jobs at risk.
In a statement carried by state news agency Anatolian, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said, “President Obama made a speech taking into consideration the sensitivities of Turkey. ... The speech by Obama shows the sensitivity of the current U.S. administration about this issue.”
But Turkey’s Foreign Ministry in a separate statement said, “We are sorry to see such a statement, which has a one-sided political view, and which contains mistakes. The biggest enemy of historical facts is the revision of memory. No country should impose on others its views of history.”
The Armenian National Committee of America expressed disappointment that Obama did not call the event a genocide.
“Sadly, for the U.S. and worldwide efforts to end the cycle of genocide, he made the wrong choice, allowing Turkey to tighten its gag-rule on American genocide policy,” ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian said in a statement.
Obama said he has “consistently” stated his own view of what occurred in 1915. “And my view of that history has not changed,” he said. He added that it is in everyone’s interest to reach “a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, editing by Stacey Joyce
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