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A Terrorist’s Bitter End

6 minute read
Thomas A. Sancton/Paris

His followers call him Apo, Kurdish for uncle. His enemies call him a terrorist and a “baby killer.” But last week, Abdullah Ocalan, proud leader of the violent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), was just the cowed captive of the country he had fought for more than 14 years. As he sat strapped into the seat of a jet en route to Turkey, his face dripped with sweat and his eyes blinked nervously while he told his captors how much he “loved” Turkey and how eager he was to “render services” to them. Then he requested medicine for his heartburn.

The pathetic scene, captured on a Turkish intelligence-service video, contrasted sharply with the macho image of the mustachioed Marxist guerrilla who has headed the long Kurdish insurgency that has left some 30,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians dead. But lest anyone imagine that the P.K.K.’s capacity for troublemaking ended with Ocalan’s surprise seizure in Nairobi, his followers responded with a wave of protests across Europe and the Middle East. The violence reached its bloody climax in Berlin, where Kurdish militants burst into the Israeli consulate and security guards opened fire, killing three and wounding 16.

Turkey, which has fought a vicious war to suppress the P.K.K., hoped Ocalan’s capture would decapitate the rebellion and finally bring it to an end. But the well-orchestrated reaction among Europe’s 850,000 Kurds suggested that their quest for independence is hardly over. Indeed, the arrest and trial of Ocalan (pronounced Oh-ja-lan) could boomerang, uniting fractious Kurds and galvanizing global sympathy for their cause. For now, though, many Turks are too busy celebrating.

The story of how Ocalan wound up in his enemies’ hands reads like a thriller. Since the mid-’80s, the Turkish-born university dropout had spent most of his time safely ensconced in Syria. From there, he directed terror against Turkish targets from P.K.K. bases in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. His goal: to force Ankara to grant independence to the country’s 12 million Kurds, part of the estimated 20 million Kurds who straddle five nations. Turkey has sought to eradicate Kurdish nationalism by suppressing their language, culture and political rights. Even so, millions of Turkey’s Kurds did not sign up with the P.K.K.’s militant separatism.

Last fall Turkey threatened to invade unless Syria handed Ocalan over. Unwilling to fight a war over a revolutionary vagabond, the Syrians in October dispatched Ocalan to Athens, then to Moscow. Five weeks later, following Russia’s refusal to grant him refugee status, he flew to Rome and requested political asylum. In the face of Turkish diplomatic and economic threats, Italy refused and on Jan. 16 sent the guerrilla back to Russia.

At that point Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos decided to extend “humanitarian assistance” to Ocalan. As a historic foe of Turkey, Greece had long supported the Kurdish cause, but shied away from giving the guerrilla leader refugee status. Pangalos hoped to muster a European Union-wide agreement to grant him political asylum. Ocalan and two aides were spirited to Athens on Jan. 29. Once there, Greece offered Ocalan only a bleak choice of destinations: Algeria, Morocco, Tunis or Libya. “We refused,” fumes a Greek close to Ocalan. “What did they think Ocalan was, a cargo of contraband cigarettes?”

A subsequent odyssey failed to find Ocalan a haven, and on Feb. 2, he headed to Nairobi. “The understanding was that Kenya was just a temporary solution of two or three days,” says Failos Kranidiotis, the guerrilla’s Greek lawyer. After that, Ocalan was expected to move permanently to another African state. According to Kenyan officials, his unmarked jet landed in Nairobi at 11:33 p.m. Kenyan authorities say Greek Ambassador George Costoulas met the plane and whisked its passengers past immigration controls.

Holed up at the ambassador’s villa, Ocalan was soon joined by three female followers and a team of lawyers. The activity raised suspicions and, according to Greek sources, attracted the attention of FBI agents in Nairobi investigating last year’s U.S. embassy bombing. On Feb. 12 four Greek intelligence agents told Ocalan to “move out as soon as possible because his whereabouts had been spotted.” They offered to hide him at a local Greek Orthodox church or fly him to another state. “Ocalan turned down all the options,” recounts Kranidiotis, who was with him in Nairobi, “but the officers tried to physically evict and drug him. That’s when an Ocalan aide flashed a revolver under her throat and threatened to commit suicide if they dared to move him.”

The next day, Kenyan officials appeared at the residence and demanded Ocalan’s departure. When the ambassador called Athens for instructions, the response was blunt: “Boot him out,” said Pangalos. By nightfall, after a final telephone call from Pangalos, Ocalan had agreed to leave on the understanding that he would be transported to the Netherlands under Greek protection.

“Once we exited the residency door, I knew something was wrong,” says Melsa Deniz, 19, one of Ocalan’s female aides. “Twenty black men emerged from three jeeps and two station wagons. Five of them forced Ocalan into a jeep but did not allow us to travel with him. The last time I saw him was when his jeep turned into a building saying POLICE STATION.” By 11:07 p.m. a blindfolded, handcuffed and drugged Ocalan was being escorted into a private jet bound for Turkey.

So who ratted on Ocalan? The Greeks say he left with Kenyan officials; Greek officials followed the vehicle for some distance, but claim it veered off and was lost in traffic. Savvas Kalderides, a Greek agent who had escorted Ocalan to Kenya, gave a different explanation in a radio interview: “The Greek government pushed Ocalan into the hands of the Turks. [It was] a betrayal.” Kurds besieged Greek embassies in response. They also blame Israeli and U.S. intelligence for fingering Ocalan, but both deny any “direct” role.

At issue now is how well Turkey handles the aftermath. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said Ocalan would quickly face trial. “It need not last too long [because] the crimes of the P.K.K.’s leadership are well known,” suggested Ecevit. Discomfiting words for a world already wary of Turkish justice and for Kurds violently alienated by Ankara’s policies. Turkey should celebrate while it can.

–Reported by Anthee H. Carassava/Athens, Aharon Klein/Jerusalem and Scott MacLeod/Cairo

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