President Barack Obama offered his first public comments Friday regarding this week's killings of three young Muslims in North Carolina, describing their deaths as “brutal and outrageous” but stopping short of labeling their murder a hate crime. The remarks come a day after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rebuked the White House’s "silence" over the incident.
“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House. Still, the president did not call the shooting deaths of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Tuesday afternoon a hate crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with local authorities, are still looking into the motives behind the shootings.
The three victims were gunned down on Tuesday in a condominium about 2 miles from the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. Police charged Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, with three counts of first-degree murder over the incident. Investigators say initial findings indicated a dispute over parking prompted the shootings.
Obama’s comments came after the administration’s perceived silence in the three days since the killings promped criticism. Speaking alongside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto during a state visit to Latin America's second-largest economy on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the silence of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry was "telling" and they should take a position following such acts.
"If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this and don't make a statement, the world will stay silent toward you," Erdogan said, condemning those responsible for the crime.
"I ask Mr. Obama, where are you, Mr. President?" he added.
Turkey, a European Union candidate nation and member of the NATO military alliance, is a key U.S. ally. But Erdogan, a devout Sunni Muslim, has become increasingly outspoken about what he sees as rising Islamophobia in the West.
Last year, Erdogan said his relations with Obama have become strained and that he no longer spoke directly with him because he was disappointed by a lack of U.S. action over the war in neighboring Syria. Erdogan said he instead spoke with Biden over issues such as Iraq.
Despite working together to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), differences have arisen between the United States and Turkey over how best to tackle the insurgent group, which controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey has been an opponent of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, backing rebels fighting to oust him and allowing Syrian political opposition to organize on Turkish soil. It has long lobbied for international intervention in the war.
Al Jazeera and wire services