"Terrorist organizations in Turkey normally conscript semi-retarded illiterates as their hit men. He did not belong to this category. He was a clever, brave and determined man. He was highly trained."
This is how Hasan Fehmi Gunes, a Turkish former interior minister, recalled Mehmet Ali Agca, the 23-year-old Turkish terrorist accused of shooting Pope John Paul II yesterday in an assassination attempt.
As interior minister, Gunes watched Istanbul police interrogate Agca in July 1979, five months after he killed Abdi Ipekci, one of Turkey's most prominent newspaper editors.
Agca, an Istanbul University economics school dropout, described himself as a "one-man terror band" unaffiliated with either the extreme left or right. Gunes claims, however, that the tall, gaunt Agca was connected with the extreme right wing.
"I say this not because he confessed," said Gunnes. "He was a man psychologically ready for interrogation and gave away nothing about his terrorist roots. He was obstinate and defiant. He merely said that he was a 'nationalist.' But we know he was extreme right because we know that the people who gave him money and arms and helped him in his crime were extreme right-wing."
The man who allegedly gave Agca the pistol with which he killed Ipekci was Mehmet Sener, who has never been caught. Turkish police speculate that Sener, a senior man in an extreme rightist underground organization, could be the unidentified man who, according to some reports, was with Agca when he shot the pope in St. Peter's Square yesterday.
Agca, who was born in the eastern Turkish town of Malatya to poor parents, escaped from the maximum security Kartal military jail in Istanbul on Nov. 24, 1979, four days before the pope arrived in Turkey for a three-day visit.
In a letter to Milliyet, the newspaper Ipekci had edited, Agca issued a threat that few took seriously then but that he was to carry out 18 months later.
"Western imperialists, who fear that Turkey may establish a new political, military and economic power in the Middle East with brotherly Islamic countries, have quickly sent a Crusader commander-in-chief, masked as a man of religion, John Paul, to Turkey," wrote Agca. "If this untimely and meaningless visit is not canceled, I will definitely shoot the pope."
In April 1980, Agca was sentenced to death in absentia by a military tribunal for his self-confessed murder of Ipekci. Several months later, Agca fled from Turkey after allegedly killing a man he held responsible for his arrest.
Police in Rome quoted Agca as saying he was associated with a Marxist Palestinian faction but Turkish authorities believe he is a member of the Gray Wolves, the terrorist organization loyal to Alparslan Turkes, chairman of the ultra right-wing Nationalist Action Party.
Turkes and about 220 members of his party are on trial for their lives on charges of instigating civil war in Turkey. Turkes has denied the charges. The prosecutor claims Turkes' followers were responsible for hundreds of murders in the period before last September's military takeover, when Turkey was on the verge of civil war.
Agca's attempt to kill the pope may reinforce the support abroad for Evren's military administration, which is coming under increasing fire in the West for its alleged violations of human rights.
Manchester Guardian correspondents David Barchard in Ankara and Siegfried Buschschluter in Frankfurt and news services reported the following:
Turks woke up this morning to discover that one of their countrymen had shot the pope. But the reaction of most Istanbul newspapers, while deploring the attack, was to lecture the West for allegedly hindering efforts of the military regime in Turkey to fight terrorism.
In an especially sharp attack, Gen. Kenan Evren, Turkey's head of state, said: "When some European friends embrace such people as political refugees, this is the result. I would like to hope some of our European friends who wander around with their heads in the clouds will come to their senses after this incident."
An editorial in Milliyet, the paper whose editor was murdered in 1979 by the pope's assailant, said Turkey had been subjected to a similar danger of assassination. "A few months ago, all the Turks were under as great a threat as the pope," said the editorial, headlined "Now Do You Understand Us?"
"Many in the world are attempting to establish a contradiction between the existing regime in Turkey and the universal principles of democracy and the rule of law," Milliyet said. "Others prefer to listen to those who are engaged in propaganda against this country. But they are all overcome with terror and grief after the assassination attempt against the pope."
A columnist in Hurriyet, the largest circulation daily, wrote: "Damn those who have led Agca in this path. . . . Yet there are other considerations concerning this abomination. We were never able to bring Europeans to understand the dimensions of terrorism in Turkey before Sept. 12," the date of the 1979 military coup.
Moslem Turkey has long made it clear that it has little sympathy for Western Christianity in general and the pope in particular. None of the major press editorials this morning showed much understanding of Western perceptions of the assassination. Turkey's Foreign Ministry did not open its information office during the night, when journalists were attempting to get information about Agca. "We didn't think it was necessary," an official said when asked why today.
Turkey has been alleging that the West is indirectly to blame for the assassination attempt on the pope through failing to help Turkish authorities chase down fugitives abroad.
A Frankfurt journalist, Jurgen Roth, a specialist on the activities of right-wing Turks in Germany, said today that Agca had come to West Germany in the middle of last year and had been recongized by Turkish workers in Ulm. A 60-man Turkish police squad went there in October to track him down but, Roth said, it was given little support by German police and did not find him. r
Roth said Frankfurt was regarded by Turkey as the headquarters of Turkish right-wing extremists. Last October, Frankfurt police searched the offices there of the Turk Federation, which is regarded by German authorities as an instrument of the extreme nationalist organization headed by Alparslan Turkes, to which Agca reportedly belonged.