WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama marked Saturday the anniversary of the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, calling for a "full" acknowledgment of the killings hotly contested by Ankara.
While denouncing the "horrific events" of 96 years ago, Obama stopped short of labeling the killings a "genocide," despite vowing to use that exact term during his 2008 run for the White House.
"I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed," the president said in a White House statement on Armenian Remembrance Day.
"A full, frank, and just acknowledgment of the facts is in all our interests."
In implicitly pleading for Turkey's recognition of the killings, he stressed that "contested history destabilizes the present and stains the memory of those whose lives were taken, while reckoning with the past lays a sturdy foundation for a peaceful and prosperous shared future."
Ankara's ambassador in Washington promptly rejected Obama's criticism, subdued or not.
"We deeply regret that POTUS (Obama's) statement on 1915 events reflect an inaccurate, flawed & one-sided political characterization of history," Ambassador Namik Tan tweeted, calling the comments "unacceptable" and "unwarranted."
"The US should encourage normalization and dialogue and not hamper it with one-sided & politically motivated statements."
The Armenian Assembly of America, a group promoting US-Armenian ties, was also not satisfied with Obama's carefully worded statement, calling it a "missed opportunity" and saying "we expect the president to honor his prior commitments and statements."
"Words do matter, and today's statement on the eve of Easter and the commemoration of the Armenian genocide was a missed opportunity to help heal open wounds of the past," said Armenian Assembly executive director Bryan Ardouny, noting that ex-US president Ronald Reagan used the controversial term.
"Genocide and its denial are pernicious, and the US needs to squarely address the consequence of genocide denial through unequivocal affirmation of this historical truth."
Turkey and Armenia signed landmark protocols in 2009, under Swiss mediation, which were a first step towards ending decades of hostility over World War I massacres of Armenians under Ottoman Turks.
"I support the courageous steps taken by individuals in Armenia and Turkey to foster a dialogue that acknowledges their common history," Obama said as he hailed the contributions of Armenian Americans.
"Our hearts and prayers are with Armenians everywhere as we recall the horrors of the Meds Yeghern, honor the memories of those who suffered, and pledge our friendship and deep respect for the people of Armenia," he added in using the Armenian term meaning "great calamity" to describe the killings.
Last year, a diplomatic row erupted between Washington and Ankara after a congressional measure sought to brand the Ottoman massacres of Armenians as "genocide."
Turkey recalled Ambassador Tan from Washington when a congressional panel adopted the text in March 2010 and sent him back a month later after the resolution failed to proceed to a full vote in the House of Representatives at the time.
Earlier Saturday, some 10,000 people rallied in the Armenian capital Yerevan to demand that Turkey recognize the "genocide" of up to 1.5 million of their kin. Hordes of youths marched with candles up to a hillock in Yerevan, consecrated to the memory of the victims.
The persecutions are commemorated every year on April 24. On that day in 1915, more than 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Constantinople, or present day Istanbul. That was followed by a wave of massacres and deportations that continued until 1917.
Turkey rejects the "genocide" label, countering that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian forces.
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