Turkish authorities took custody of Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya and flew him to Turkey on Tuesday, setting off violent, coordinated protests by his supporters in at least 24 European cities.
In a day of rage, thousands of Kurdish activists took to the streets, storming diplomatic missions from London to Moscow, taking hostages, throwing firebombs, overturning cars, smashing store windows and skirmishing with riot police, who recaptured some of the occupied buildings by force.
But it was a day of triumph for Turkey’s rulers as their most wanted fugitive sailed to an island prison in handcuffs and with a sack over his head to await trial and a possible death sentence for his role in an ethnic conflict that has claimed about 30,000 lives in 15 years.
“We had promised that the state would catch him; we have kept our promise,” Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit announced amid flag-waving, horn-honking jubilation at home. “He will pay the price of his accounts to the independent Turkish courts.”
Ocalan’s arrest was a potentially crippling blow to his armed Kurdistan Workers Party, which is demanding autonomy for the 12 million Kurds who make up about one-fifth of Turkey’s population and live mostly in the country’s poverty-stricken southeast.
Since the founding of their modern republic 75 years ago, Turkish rulers have sought to assimilate Kurds into a monolithic state, forbidding them to teach or broadcast in their own language. They have refused to negotiate with Ocalan’s guerrilla movement, which has been blacklisted by the United States as a terrorist group.
Ecevit said a 12-day Turkish covert operation helped reel in Ocalan, but he gave no details. On the run since a threatened Turkish invasion drove him from his base in Syria in October, the 50-year-old rebel had dropped from sight a month ago and most recently was hiding at the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, until his capture under murky circumstances late Monday.
Word spread quickly among Europe’s closely linked and politically attentive Kurdish emigre communities that Greek and Kenyan officials--despite their denials--had facilitated Ocalan’s arrest.
Kurdish militants at one point held at least a dozen buildings and eight people, including Greece’s ambassador to Austria and the wife and 8-year-old son of his counterpart in the Netherlands. All the hostages were reportedly released unharmed by early today.
In Dusseldorf, Germany, protesters held a man at the window of the Greek Consulate as if they were going to throw him out but then pulled him back inside. Beyond Europe, Kurds marched on Greek consulates in Vancouver, Canada, and Sydney, Australia. Dozens were arrested.
Many Kurdish protesters doused themselves with gasoline, threatening self-immolation; three caught fire, but police quickly extinguished the flames. A Kurd occupying the Greek Consulate in the German city of Leipzig threw himself from a second-floor window but was caught in a safety net by rescue workers.
Several Kurds set themselves ablaze in Turkish prisons, and one died of his burns.
Greek embassies and consulates bore the brunt of the Kurdish onslaught, apparently because they were easier targets than the well-guarded Turkish missions that have been accustomed to such attacks in Europe since the 1980s.
But the United Nations was also a target. At the U.N., spokesman Fred Eckhard said that before dawn in Geneva about 25 Kurds entered the U.N. offices at the Palais des Nations using a fake delivery vehicle to get through the gate.
Protesters Act Out of Despair, Revenge
Some demonstrators said they were acting out of despair, others out of a desire for revenge. By evening, the protesters had stood down in many cities, saying there was little the Greeks--or any European government--could do to help Ocalan now.
Still other Kurds called the protests a warning of mayhem to come if their cause in Turkey is crushed.
“We have nothing to lose,” said a Kurd in London who identified himself only as Sadik. He had joined a crowd chanting “Shame on you!” outside the Greek Embassy, which was occupied by about 50 demonstrators. “We have lost our country, lost our villages, and now lost our leader. This man is the hope for Kurdish people all over the world.”
Ocalan’s rebels have been losing ground in recent years--partly as a result of high-level defections and the Turkish army’s destruction of nearly 3,000 Kurdish villages that refused to turn against the insurgency.
The rebel leader’s flight from his Syrian-based guerrilla camps Oct. 9 was another setback. Military sources in Turkey say it has resulted in a debilitating leadership struggle between Osman Ocalan, the rebel leader’s brother, and Cemil Bayik, the rebels’ chief of staff.
But Turkey’s leaders were determined to demoralize the insurgency further by bringing Ocalan in.
Rebel Leader’s Failed Flight to Freedom
From Syria, Ocalan fled to Russia, where an ultranationalist lawmaker set him up in a secret-police compound near Moscow--until Israeli intelligence agents traced him by intercepting his cellular phone calls and alerted their allies the Turks.
Pressed by Russia to leave, Ocalan flew to Italy on Nov. 12, surrendered to police and asked for political asylum, hoping that a foothold in Europe would gain Western diplomatic support for his cause. That effort failed.
Because he faced the death penalty at home, Italy was barred by its constitution from extraditing him to Turkey. But it was also unwilling to anger the Turks and asked him to leave. He did so Jan. 16 and dropped out of sight.
Since then, Ocalan has been seeking refuge in a number of European countries, to no avail. On Feb. 2, he tried to fly in a private plane to the Netherlands to take his cause to the International Court of Justice but was turned away and landed on the Greek island of Corfu.
Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos explained Tuesday that Ocalan was allowed to refuel his plane on Corfu but could not stay in Greece. He was sent on to Nairobi and put up in the Greek Embassy there “for purely humanitarian reasons,” he said.
“There were negotiations underway with neighboring [African] countries for political asylum,” Pangalos said.
Kenyan officials said Ocalan arrived in Nairobi under a false name and was met at the airport by Greek Ambassador George Costoulas. Learning later of Ocalan’s presence, the Kenyans said Costoulas denied it repeatedly, until they presented him Monday with unspecified evidence and asked him to “expatriate” the guerrilla leader. He agreed to do so, they said.
There were conflicting accounts Tuesday of how Ocalan’s two-week stay at the embassy ended.
Pangalos alleged that Ocalan left the embassy Monday, on the advice of his Dutch lawyers, to try to return to the Netherlands but that his car mysteriously dropped out of a convoy on the way to Nairobi’s airport.
But Britta Boehler, one of Ocalan’s Dutch lawyers, said the rebel leader “did not leave [the embassy] voluntarily. He was physically dragged out” by Kenyan police.
A Kenyan guard at the embassy told Associated Press that men in Kenyan government vehicles entered the compound and forcibly removed three men Monday, although he did not know whether Ocalan was among them.
Kenyan officials denied that they arrested Ocalan. If any Kenyan police were involved in his expulsion from the country, they said, it was only as escorts.
“All the government was interested in is that he was removed from here,” said a Kenyan Foreign Ministry source. “The details were not known to us. Ocalan was the responsibility of the Greek ambassador.”
In any case, Ocalan was put aboard a private jet leased by the Turkish government from a Turkish textile magnate for the sole purpose of bringing the rebel leader home from Africa. Turkish television reports said Ocalan, wearing a dark suit, was tricked into boarding the plane in the belief that he was being flown to the Netherlands.
Hours later, after a flight to Istanbul, he was seen in a hood and handcuffs in the Turkish port city of Bandirma, boarding a navy frigate for imprisonment on Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara.
One Turkish source said that his government had learned of Ocalan’s presence in Kenya from the FBI. Another source in Turkey said the rebel leader’s habit of talking on cell phones had given him away again.
The Clinton administration insisted that it played no direct role in Ocalan’s capture or transfer but noted that Washington had exerted diplomatic pressure on Greece and other governments to track him down. U.S. officials would not comment on any role Washington played in finding Ocalan.
“We’re obviously very pleased with the apprehension of this terrorist leader,” White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said.
Ocalan faces trial on charges of leading a terrorist group, promoting separatism and ordering killings of Kurds who collaborated with the Turks or fell out with him in the guerrilla movement.
The charges carry a possible death penalty by hanging--a punishment Turkey has not carried out since 1984. Turkey promised that Ocalan would get a fair trial.
In Los Angeles, reaction from members of the Kurdish and Muslim communities was marked by frustration but hardly surprise. Many said the long-standing problem of Turkey’s denial of human and national rights to Kurds has led to extreme actions by guerrilla groups such as that led by Ocalan.
“It’s not about [Ocalan],” said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “It’s bigger than that individual. This is a glimpse into a larger problem dealing with the status of the national rights of Kurds and of security in the region.”
Special correspondent Zaman reported from Ankara, and Times staff writer Boudreaux reported from Rome. Times staff writers Carol J. Williams in Berlin, Paul Watson in Vienna, Marjorie Miller in London, Maura Reynolds in Moscow, Dean E. Murphy in Johannesburg, South Africa, John J. Goldman at the United Nations, Norman Kempster in Washington and Julie Ha in Los Angeles, and special correspondents Lillian Isangalo in Nairobi and Maria Petrakis in Athens, contributed to this report.