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  •   Turkey Celebrates Capture of Ocalan

    Turkish special team members sit next to bound and handcuffed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan aboard a private plane as he is flown in Turkey. (Reuters)
    By Amberin Zaman
    Special to The Washington Post
    Thursday, February 18, 1999; Page A17

    ANKARA, Turkey, Feb. 17 Turkish television today triumphantly broadcast footage of captured Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, who was blindfolded, handcuffed and appeared in some pain as he was escorted by a Turkish security detail on a flight back to Turkey from Kenya.

    The first pictures of Ocalan following his dramatic capture by Turkish agents in Nairobi late Monday offered millions of Turks irrefutable proof that the country's most-wanted man was in the hands of Turkish authorities.

    "Welcome to your country; you are our guest now," a security agent in a black ski mask told Ocalan in the broadcast before trading high-fives with other members of the detail.

    Ocalan faces a host of charges stemming from his role as leader of the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which the Turkish government blames for the deaths of an estimated 30,000 people in the rebel group's 14-year campaign to create a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey. His arrest ended a four-month fugitive odyssey that began with expulsion from his longtime base in Syria. It continued with several unsuccessful attempts to find asylum in Western Europe and concluded as he was being driven from the Greek ambassador's residence in Nairobi to the local airport for yet another flight in search of safety.

    Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit reiterated today that Ocalan would be given a "fair and just" trial and said his interrogation had begun at a minimum-security prison on Imrali Island, which is situated in the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul. Officials said other inmates were transferred to mainland prisons to accommodate Ocalan and the security force guarding him.

    Three attorneys from the Netherlands flew to Istanbul Tuesday to take part in Ocalan's defense, but they were sent home today after being detained for questioning overnight at Istanbul airport. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the Dutch lawyers were not permitted to enter the country because they had acted "like PKK militants" and "because they intend to cause provocation and sensation and have no intention to act as lawyers." Under Turkish law, foreign nationals cannot defend Turkish citizens in court.

    The videotape of Ocalan, provided to television networks by the National Intelligence Service, showed the Kurdish rebel blindfolded and strapped into a seat aboard a private jet, which flew him from Nairobi to Turkey Tuesday. He was flanked by masked members of a special security unit known as the "Maroon Berets."

    Ocalan winced as one of his captors slowly stripped off the thick white bandage covering his eyes. Looking dazed and occasionally clutching his abdomen in apparent pain, he said: "I love the Turkish people; I love the Kurdish people. . . . I have a hunch I can be of service to the Turkish people and the Kurdish people. My mother is a Turk. Let there be no torture or anything."

    His voice was thick and groggy, suggesting that he might have been sedated. A uniformed physician asked Ocalan if he was experiencing stomach trouble. "Is it burning?" the doctor asked. Ocalan burped several times and nodded dejectedly.

    Details of the capture remained sketchy nearly 48 hours after it was carried out. But a senior Turkish official familiar with the operation corroborated earlier reports that Turkish agents intercepted his car, which was being escorted to Nairobi airport by Greek diplomats. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "Even our man [the Turkish ambassador to Nairobi] did not know that our boys were in town."

    He said the 10-member security team had flown to Nairobi in a small passenger jet owned by a Turkish textiles magnate about 10 days before Ocalan's capture. This apparently occurred about four days after Ocalan had flown to a remote airport in Greece in search of asylum but was transferred instead to Nairobi by Greek authorities, according to previous intelligence accounts.

    Political analysts here said that relations between Turkey and Greece -- long-standing rivals already -- could worsen as a result of reports that Ocalan had traveled to Nairobi on a diplomatic passport issued by the Greek Cypriot government, which is closely allied with the government in Athens. Officials here provided reporters with photocopies of a passport issued in the name of Mavros Lazaros, a Greek Cypriot journalist with strong links to Ocalan's PKK, and stamped with a Kenyan visa.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Sermet Atacanli accused Greece today of misleading Turkey about Ocalan's whereabouts. "This person was hosted by the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, which is a grave and thought-provoking occurrence," he said.

    Ocalan faces six counts of promoting separatism and at least one count of treason, which carries a death penalty, and will be tried by a military-civilian state-security court that has jurisdiction in political cases. Under Turkish law, Ocalan can be interrogated for up to seven days before facing public prosecution. Legal experts here say his conviction is not in doubt and that he likely will be sentenced to death -- although that could be commuted to life in prison. Speaking on CNN today, Ecevit said he opposes capital punishment and that his Democratic Left Party supports legislation that would abolish the death penalty.

    Many Western diplomats here said it is unlikely Ocalan will be hanged -- the most common form of execution here -- because Turkey does not want to draw further criticism of its poor human rights record or make a martyr of Ocalan. They also noted that a death sentence has not been carried out here in more than 10 years.

    Meanwhile, several thousand Turkish troops crossed into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq today in what Turkish military officials described as a "limited operation" against PKK rebels based in rugged mountains along the Turkish-Iraqi border. Officials here said that rebel communications monitored in the region suggest that a leadership struggle has erupted within rebel ranks. They said Ocalan's brother Osman, who is closely allied with Iran, appears to have declared himself his brother's successor but that he reportedly is being challenged by Syrian-backed rebel commanders Murat Karayilan and Cemil Bayik.

    Background: The Kurds

    The Kurds have been subjugated by neighboring peoples for most of their history. In modern times, Kurds have tried to set up independent states in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, but their efforts have been crushed every time.


    * 1920: After World War I, when the Ottoman Empire is carved up, the Kurds are promised independence by the Treaty of Sevres.

    * 1923: Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rejects the treaty, and Turkish forces put down Kurdish uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s. The Kurdish struggle lies dormant for decades.

    * 1978: Abdullah Ocalan, left, one of seven children of a poor farming family, establishes the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, which advocates independence.

    * 1979: Ocalan flees Turkey for Syria.

    * 1984: Ocalan's PKK begins armed struggle, recruiting thousands of young Kurds who are driven by Turkish repression of their culture and language and by poverty. Turkish forces fight the PKK guerrillas, who also establish bases across the border in Iraq, for years. Conflict costs about 30,000 lives.

    * 1998: Ocalan, who has directed his guerrillas from Syria, is expelled by Damascus under pressure from Ankara. He begins his multi-nation odyssey until he is captured in Nairobi, Kenya, Monday, and taken to Turkey, where he may face the death penalty.


    * 15 million to 20 million Kurds live in a mountainous area straddling the borders of Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. About 8 million live in southeastern Turkey.

    * The Kurds are a non-Arabic people who speak a language related to Persian. Most adhere to the Sunni Muslim faith.


    * 1946: Kurds succeed in establishing the republic of Mahabad, with Soviet backing. But a year later, the Iranian monarch crushes the embryonic state.

    * 1979: Turmoil of Iran's revolution allows Kurds to establish unofficial border area free of Iranian government control; Kurds do not hold it for long.


    * Kurds in northern Iraq -- under a British mandate -- revolt in 1919, 1923 and 1932, but are crushed.

    * Under Mustafa Barzani, they wage an intermittent struggle against Baghdad.

    * 1970: Baghdad grants Kurds language rights and self rule, but deal breaks down partly over oil revenues.

    * 1974: New clashes erupt; Iraqis force 130,000 Kurds into Iran. But Iran withdraws support for Kurds the following year.

    * 1988: Iraqis launch poison-gas attack, killing 5,000 Kurds in town of Halabja.

    * 1991: After Persian Gulf War, northern Iraq's Kurdish area comes under international protection.

    * 1999: Two rival Iraqi Kurdish factions, one led by Mustafa Barzani's son Massoud, the other by Jalal Talabani, broker a peace deal; goal is for Kurdish area to become part of a democratic Iraq.

    SOURCES: Reuters, World Almanac, staff reports

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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