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By Jocelyne Zablit, AFP
U.S. lawmakers are questioning the apparent dismissal of the US ambassador to Armenia over a statement he made in which he recognized the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide.

Sixty members of Congress on Monday sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to express concern about ambassador John Evans's early departure from Yerevan in coming weeks.

The White House on Tuesday nominated Richard Hoagland, the current ambassador to Tajikistan, to replace Evans. His nomination requires confirmation by the Senate.

The lawmakers said in their letter to Rice that recent information indicates Evans was sacked for declaring in February 2005 that "the Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century". He made the statement in meetings with Armenian-American communities. Evans later corrected his remarks, as Washington does not officially recognize as genocide the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

"I am seriously concerned at the early departure of Ambassador Evans," Congressman Ed Markey, a Democrat, said Wednesday in a statement. "I hope that this sudden action by the State Department is not related to comments made by Ambassador Evans about the Armenian genocide."

The State Department had no immediate comment but a spokesman underlined that all ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president.

The 60 congressmen who signed the letter to Rice defended his use of the word "genocide", saying it was a proper interpretation of the "cataclysmic events of 1915". "By employing the proper term last year, the ambassador was only building on previous statements by our leaders in government, as well as the repeated declarations of numerous world-renowned scholars," the letter states, referring to comments made by then-president Ronald Reagan in 1981 in which he specifically used the word genocide in describing massacres.

"In effect, Ambassador Evans did nothing more than succinctly repeat the conclusions enunciated by those before him," the lawmakers said. They also questioned whether Turkey had played a part in Evans's departure from Armenia.

"Were the United States to allow the views or beliefs of a third country to interfere with our diplomatic postings to the Republic of Armenia, it would establish a dangerous precedent and be injurious to the long-standing relationship built on trust and friendship between the two countries," the letter said.

Evans, a career diplomat, was appointed ambassador to Armenia in August 2004. Ambassadors typically serve overseas for an average of three years.

The U.S. administration has consistently stopped short of calling the World War I massacres of Armenians a genocide. However several other countries, including France, Canada and Switzerland, recognize them as such.

Turkey has lobbied hard against the "genocide" label, arguing that 300,000 Armenians and as many Turks were killed in civil strife in the final years of the Ottoman Empire when the Armenians rose up for independence in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading Russian troops.

(Photolur photo: Evans laying a wreathe at the genocide memorial in Yerevan on April 24.)
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