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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's prime minister has threatened to expel thousands of illegal Armenian immigrants after U.S. and Swedish lawmakers passed votes branding World War One-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.
Muslim Turkey, a NATO member and candidate to join the European Union, recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Stockholm earlier this month after the non-binding votes and warned they could hurt a fragile effort to reconcile with Christian Armenia after a century of hostility.
Asked about the votes in an interview with the BBC Turkish service that was broadcast late on Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said: "There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country. Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000.
"If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don't have to keep them in my country."
Commentators have said the U.S. vote could affect Washington's use of the Incirlik Air base in southeast Turkey, which provides vital logistical support for U.S. troops going to and from Iraq.
Erdogan's comments met with a stern reaction from Armenia.
"This kind of political statement does not help improve relations between the two states," said Prime Minister Tigran Sarksyan.
"I agree with the assessment that when the Turkish prime minister allows himself to make such statements, the events of 1915 immediately return to our memory," he added.
Thousands of illegal Armenian immigrants, mostly women from the impoverished countryside, work as cleaning ladies and in other low-skilled jobs in Istanbul, where many settled after an earthquake in their homeland in 1988.
The exact number of Armenian immigrants in Turkey is unknown. But Turkish-Armenian groups say Turkish politicians inflate numbers of illegal workers and threaten expulsions whenever tensions escalate between Ankara and Yerevan.
Erdogan said Armenian immigrants had been allowed to work in Turkey as a "display of our peaceful approach, but we have to get something in return".
Aris Nalci, an editor at Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper Agos, said it was not the first time Erdogan had made such remarks. "We are not taking it as a serious threat," he said.
Muslim Turkey and Christian Armenia signed historic accords last year to establish diplomatic ties and open their border.
But the deal has yet to be ratified by their respective parliaments and the governments have accused each other of trying to rewrite the texts. Erdogan's comments could further strain the process of normalising ties that have been burdened by the deportation and killing of Armenians during the chaotic end of the Ottoman empire nearly a century ago.
Sarksyan said the issue of illegal immigrants should be solved through diplomacy and for that to happen the two countries should normalise relations.
The deportation threats will be frowned upon by European governments that have voiced support for Turkey's EU bid, and have backed the peace accords with Armenia.
Suat Kiniklioglu, foreign affairs spokesman for the ruling AK Party, played down Erdogan's words, saying the premier felt the need to "remind the public" about Armenians living illegally in Turkey. He said Erdogan was "not talking about something that would happen today or tomorrow".
In the interview, Erdogan accused the Armenian diaspora of pushing the resolutions in the United States and Sweden and called on Armenia and other foreign governments to avoid being swayed by their lobbying. The U.S. and Swedish governments opposed the resolutions, which passed by extremely thin margins.
The issue of the Armenian massacres is deeply sensitive in Turkey, which accepts that many Christian Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks but vehemently denies that up to 1.5 million died and that it amounted to genocide -- a term employed by many Western historians and some foreign parliaments.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson and Daren Butler in Istanbul and Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Jackie Cowhig