A Most Unwanted Man
The prime minister of Greece interrupted a meeting to take an urgent, whispered message: Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of Kurdish rebels fighting for an autonomous homeland in Turkey, had slipped into Greece. The messenger, a Greek official sympathetic to the Kurdish cause, wanted to know: How can we help him?
Prime Minister Costas Simitis turned pale, according to a published account of the Jan. 29 incident. “Don’t do this to me!” he snapped before ordering the Kurdish leader sent away--quietly and at once.
Such was the sense of panic that swept through Europe’s halls of government over the past four months as the notorious warlord hunted by Turkey bounced like a pingpong ball from one capital to another in a desperate search for refuge.
By Monday, when he was seized by Turkish commandos in distant Kenya, Ocalan was known to have logged short stays or refueling stops in Moscow; Rome; Minsk, Belarus; Athens and Corfu, Greece; and St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, before being asked to leave. Paris, Bonn, Oslo, Stockholm, the Swiss capital of Bern, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Kiev in Ukraine had given him a more emphatic “No, don’t bother even trying to land.”
“One by one, the doors of Europe closed on us,” said Mizgen Sen, an aide to the man now imprisoned on a tiny Turkish island. The most wanted man in Turkey became the most unwanted man just about everywhere else.
The capture of Ocalan in Kenya, a milestone in Europe and the Middle East, was a murky affair involving U.S. intelligence agents who had traced him to the African nation, Kenyans incensed that the Greek ambassador had sneaked him into their country, his Greek Embassy hosts who had tired of an overbearing guest and Turkish commandos who flew in for a mission code-named Safari.
But more clearly, the rebel leader’s downfall was the inevitable result of his thorough isolation--an aversion by the string of democratic nations where he sought asylum to risking troublesome involvement in Turkey’s intractable armed conflict.
Turkey’s diplomacy, as hard-edged as its military campaign against the Kurds, helped create what one official here called “an iron curtain” against Ocalan. Perhaps more influential was diplomatic pressure from the United States, which loudly echoed Turkey’s view that the 50-year-old warlord is more a terrorist than a freedom fighter in a conflict that has left nearly 30,000 people dead.
Ocalan did little to help himself. Unseasoned in the clandestine warfare that he had orchestrated for nearly 15 years from comfortable quarters in Syria, the man known as Apo couldn’t keep his head down.
He talked too much on his cell phone and was detected at least twice--by Israeli and U.S. agents. Last weekend, in an incident that precipitated his downfall, he lost patience with Greece, a regional rival of Turkey and one of the few countries that had dared to help find him a permanent haven; in front of stunned Greeks at the embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, a Kurdish aide pulled a gun and threatened suicide.
“He was used to giving the orders and wouldn’t take any from us,” said Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, who lost his job Thursday in the fallout at home over Ocalan’s capture. “He rejected our advice [to keep quiet in Kenya] and started talking, talking to the whole world!”
Exit From Syria Starts 129 Days on the Run
Ocalan lost control over his fate Oct. 9 when Syria, under threat of a Turkish military invasion, put him on a plane to Moscow. He spent the next 129 days on the run, seeking a European base to rally political support for the cause of self-rule by Turkey’s 12 million Kurds.
Turkey’s aggressive pursuit of Ocalan was helped by its growing military alliance with Israel.
Officials in Jerusalem deny a direct role in Turkey’s war with the Kurds or in Ocalan’s capture. But Turkish officials say Israeli intelligence helped them track Ocalan to Moscow last fall. Turkey and the United States then pressed Russia to get rid of him, with Turkey promising Moscow high-tech military equipment.
The Russians offered Ocalan safe passage to Greece, Libya, Armenia or Cyprus. Instead, he phoned a Communist ally in the Italian Parliament who then flew to Moscow, escorted him to Rome on Nov. 12 and counseled him to surrender to airport police. Italy’s government, caught off guard, held him on a warrant for ordering terrorist acts in Germany--until the Germans dropped that case out of fear that it would provoke violence at home.
Ocalan’s visible presence in Italy ignited a wave of demonstrations, some of them violent, by Kurdish emigres across Europe. They were angered by his arrest and then jubilant over Italy’s refusal to extradite him to face terrorism charges in Turkey, where he could be sentenced to death. The latter decision sent Turks into the streets--at home and in other countries--to smash Italian fruit and burn Pirelli tires.
Italian leaders talked at first of trying Ocalan somewhere in Europe while asking the European Union to attempt mediating an end to the war. Many European leaders sympathize with the Kurds’ plight as a stateless people, but the rival outbursts, which brought the specter of Turkish-Kurdish conflict to their doorsteps, helped dampen any will on the continent to get involved.
“The Turks were not interested in peace talks, so Europe gave up Ocalan as a hopeless cause,” Sen, Ocalan’s aide, said from Brussels.
Instead, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit warned that “opening your door to Apo means becoming an accomplice to terrorism.” Turkish embassies around the world delivered that message in person to officials in every country where Ocalan was rumored to be hiding or headed.
After Jan. 16, when Italy persuaded Ocalan to leave, that list included Armenia, Lebanon, Iran, Belarus, Ukraine, Denmark, Estonia, South Africa, Libya, Sudan and North Korea, according to O. Faruk Logoglu, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister, who said demarches went out nearly every day.
Parallel demarches came from Washington, which blacklists Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party as a terrorist group.
“We weighed in heavily with the Syrians--when Ocalan was thrown out--with a message from President Clinton that they were playing with fire,” a senior Clinton administration source said. “We were similarly firm with the Italians--that they needed to find a way to bring him to justice.” In the end, they just shipped him off.
“Whenever there was a sense he was someplace new or intended to go someplace else, we were active in discouraging against either giving asylum or allowing him passage,” the source added.
As a result, Pangalos said, “there was a full alert at Europe’s airports; not even a mosquito could get past.” Ocalan reportedly spent much of late January trying to get Russia to allow him to stay; for more than a week, he was detained at Nizhny Novgorod’s airport.
Naval Officer Sets Off Greek Involvement
Greece’s embarrassing effort to find him a haven began with private citizen Andonis Naxakis, a retired Greek naval officer with ties to the Kurdish rebels.
They won his sympathy with the assertion that Russian mobsters hired by Turkey were out to kill Ocalan. Naxakis arranged for Ocalan to fly from St. Petersburg to Athens on the private jet of a Greek businessman Jan. 29.
That evening, the navy veteran showed up at the seaside villa of a writer friend, Voula Damianakou, in Nea Makri north of Athens and astonished her with this greeting: “Voula, Abdullah Ocalan is outside. We have to give him a room,” the writer recalled.
Naxakis asked to meet Pangalos but was visited instead by Greek intelligence agents. On the prime minister’s orders, they put Ocalan back on the private plane Feb. 1, and it took off for Rotterdam.
Ocalan thought that he could show up at the International Court of Justice in The Hague without an appointment and argue the Kurdish cause. But he never landed. The Dutch turned his plane away, and it went back to Greece, landing on the island of Corfu.
Rebel Leader Puts Greece in a Bind
Greece was in a bind. Like the navy veteran, many of its people identify with Ocalan as a modern-day embodiment of the Greeks who fought Ottoman Turkish rule in the 19th century. Greek leaders voice support for Kurdish self-rule. But having been to the brink of war with its Turkish neighbor three times in the past 25 years, Greece has the most to lose by openly aiding Ocalan’s movement and has avoided doing so.
Simitis’ government opted for a compromise. It agreed to harbor Ocalan temporarily but at what it thought was a safe distance--about 3,000 miles to the south, at its ambassador’s English Colonial-style residence in Nairobi.
Pangalos said he chose Kenya for its proximity to two unnamed African nations that were considering asylum for Ocalan and its extensive Greek-owned farms suitable for hiding out.
Ocalan, four Kurdish aides and a Greek security official landed in Nairobi on Feb. 2. Greek Ambassador George Costoulas used his diplomatic privilege to escort them through the airport, bypassing immigration controls.
Many Greeks now acknowledge that Nairobi was a foolish choice--or evidence of how limited the rebel leader’s options were. Six months after a terrorist bombing killed 213 people at the U.S. Embassy there, FBI agents are still in the Kenyan capital in force, and within two days they had detected Ocalan’s presence, as did British and Israeli agents later, Turkish officials said. Turkish media said U.S. intelligence may have traced Ocalan’s flight from Corfu.
“Like sending a lamb to the slaughter,” said Osman Ocalan, the rebel leader’s brother.
As the Greeks were denying Ocalan’s presence to the clued-in Kenyans, Turkey’s General Staff Special Operations Command met in Ankara on Feb. 4 and assigned an elite Tiger unit of its Maroon Berets division to fly down and seize the fugitive.
Without divulging their purpose, the Operations Command leased a Falcon 900B triple-engine jet from a Turkish textile magnate and disguised it by painting a Malaysian flag over the Turkish insignia on its fuselage. Ecevit said four or five commandos, a doctor and a pilot left for Nairobi on Feb. 12.
Turkey does not have a large diplomatic presence in Nairobi. The eight-day delay of Operation Safari was apparently to give the Americans time to gain assurances of cooperation from the Kenyans and the Greeks.
“The Americans pressured Greece to hand Ocalan to the Kenyans and Kenya to hand him over to Turkey,” said Murat Cagatay, a specialist on Turkish-Kurdish relations at the private Tosav research institute in Ankara.
Eager for Asylum, He Makes Demands
During the wait, Ocalan began chafing at the slow pace of Greece’s promised diplomacy to find him asylum.
He began to contact Kenyan officials and his Netherlands-based attorneys, Greek officials said. He spoke on the telephone and took walks around the diplomatic compound, where bougainvillea and crimson flowers spill over the surrounding walls.
He demanded a false passport, money and a plane to take him to the Netherlands for another try at the international court. He fired off statements “from a refuge somewhere in Europe,” saying his life was in danger; he appealed again for asylum in Italy, France, Greece or Russia, or even a trial in Germany.
Ocalan’s desperation worried the Greeks, who thought that his presence was still secret. Under pressure from superiors in Athens, they began demanding Saturday that he move to a Kenyan farm or Greek Orthodox church, said Failos Kranidiotis, his Greek lawyer.
At that point, Dillan Kilic, one of Ocalan’s aides, pulled a gun and threatened to shoot herself, which made the Greeks more nervous. “The officials got scared because they realized there were guns in the embassy,” the lawyer said.
Ambassador Costoulas met with Kenyan authorities Monday morning and returned with an offer backed by both governments to fly Ocalan and his group anywhere in Europe that afternoon, Kilic said.
Savvas Kalenderidis, the Greek security agent sent to Kenya with Ocalan, smelled a trap and said so to his brother in Athens in a phone conversation that was taped and later played on Greek radio.
“I’m scared,” Kalenderidis said. “I don’t know if I’ll get out alive. There are MIT [Turkish intelligence] and American agents outside. . . . Something went wrong. I don’t know who miscalculated.”
But Kilic said Ocalan trusted the ambassador’s assurances and agreed to leave.
Her account--corroborated in part by Kalenderidis and Kenya’s chief immigration official--said a Kenyan security official and four Greek agents newly dispatched from Athens entered the compound Monday afternoon and, without force, separated Ocalan from his group and put him into a Kenyan police car.
Refusing the ambassador’s appeal to ride with Ocalan, the Kenyan ordered him, Kalenderidis and the Kurdish aides into other cars and headed to the airport in a convoy, she said. Ocalan’s car sped ahead and got there first, she added; the others arrived to see the Kurdish leader being escorted through a police entrance at the airport, but they were turned back.
According to most accounts, the Turkish commandos simply waited on the plane for Ocalan to be delivered to them.
Grabbing him by the wrist, one of the commandos said: “You’ve come to the end of the road. We’re going to Turkey!” the Turkish newspaper Sabah reported.
The initial Kenyan account of the capture, from Foreign Minister Bonaya Godana, said his country played no role. But Kenyan sources told news agencies Thursday that President Daniel Arap Moi, wanting to keep good relations with the U.S., had overruled Godana and ordered that Ocalan be handed to the Turks.
There were conflicting reports about whether Greek officials secretly cooperated with the Turks and deliberately sent Ocalan into a trap. In one telltale sign that they did, police evicted Kurdish refugees from a tent city in Athens hours before Ocalan’s arrest--apparently as a precaution against the expected violent reaction.
“In the interest of not disturbing those parties who took part in this operation,” Ecevit told an interviewer Wednesday, “I will use a local expression and say, ‘Let us eat the grape and not ask where it came from.’ ”
Times staff writers John-Thor Dahlburg in Paris, David Holley in Warsaw, Norman Kempster and Robin Wright in Washington, Dean E. Murphy in Johannesburg and special correspondents Amberin Zaman in Ankara and Maria Petrakis in Athens contributed to this report.
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In October, the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan left his guerrilla base in Syria after Turkey threatened to invade. He arrived in Italy the following month by way of Russia. What follows is an account of the rest of his saga as provided by Greek officials.
(1) Nov. 12: Ocalan surrenders to police in Rome upon arrival, asking for political asylum, which he is ultimately denied. He leaves Italy on Jan. 16. For the next two weeks, his whereabouts are unknown.
(2) Jan. 29: Ocalan arrives in Athens, Greece, brought in on a Lear jet accompanied by retired Greek naval officer Andonis Naxakis. They tell airport VIP services the plane is carrying a Russian undersecretary. Greek intelligence services later realize it is Ocalan. He spends the night at the home of writer Voula Damianakou in Nea Makri, 12 miles from Athens.
Jan. 30: Ocalan meets with intelligence director Dimitris Stavrakakis, who tells him he must leave the country. Ocalan spends the night in Naxakis’ home near Athens.
(3) Jan. 31: Ocalan leaves on a Lear jet for Minsk, Belarus, where Kurdish associates say they will provide an aircraft to take him to the Netherlands. Belarus and the Netherlands refuse overflight permission to Ocalan’s plane.
(4) Feb. 1: Ocalan’s plane returns to Athens international airport before dawn but is diverted to the western island of Corfu in the afternoon for security reasons. Ocalan stays in a house provided by Greek officials.
(5) Feb. 2: The Greek foreign ministry flies Ocalan to Nairobi, Kenya, planning to house him in a Greek-owned home in the countryside. But Ocalan demands to stay in ambassador’s residence in Nairobi. Greek authorities begin talks to have another African country grant Ocalan political asylum. South Africa apparently agrees to accept him.
Feb. 12: Information indicates Ocalan must be removed from the Greek diplomatic premises. Greeks fear his location is widely known. Discussions begin to take him to a neighboring country or a Greek Orthodox Church in Kenya.
Feb. 14: Kenyan security forces surround the Greek Embassy and ambassador’s residence in Nairobi.
Feb. 15: Ocalan disappears while on his way from the Greek ambassador’s residence to the airport, where he was to fly to the Netherlands.
Feb. 16: Turkish Premier Bulent Ecevit announces Turkish forces have arrested Ocalan.
Source: Associated Press