Global Warning After Guerrilla’s Arrest

Edward Wright is a former assistant foreign editor at The Times. His column appears monthly


Violent demonstrations erupted across Europe earlier this month after fugitive Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, who had been hiding in the Greek Embassy in Kenya, was taken into Turkish custody and flown to Turkey. Three of Ocalan’s supporters were killed as thousands of Kurdish demonstrators clashed with police and stormed Greek, Kenyan, Israeli and U.N. diplomatic sites in nearly two dozen cities. Washington officials acknowledged helping Turkey arrest Ocalan, and the State Department issued a global warning to U.S. citizens that the danger of reprisals “may extend to American interests as well.” Although Americans were neither targeted nor injured, the incidents illustrated how events can suddenly transform diplomatic facilities into danger zones. Travelers abroad should monitor news reports and be aware of shifting political winds.

Spring and summer breaks are coming up, and many students will be taking much-anticipated trips abroad, some of them for the first time. In its annual cautionary note to student travelers, the State Department points out that each year more than 2,500 Americans are arrested abroad, about half on drug-related charges, including possession of very small amounts of substances. A drug that is legal in one country may be outlawed in a neighboring nation. Sometimes behavior alone may invite trouble. In many countries, conduct that would not bring arrest in the United States can be a violation of local law. Students are urged to become familiar with basic laws and customs of each country they plan to visit. The State Department’s Internet site (see below) is a good place to start.


Vietnam: The themes of congestion, crime and danger to travelers dominate a recent report on Ho Chi Minh City by the U.S. Consulate General in Vietnam’s second city. Part of the increase in crime is due to a population shift from the countryside to the former Saigon, resulting in high unemployment. Among the report’s grim findings:

* The frequency of street crime, particularly around the major hotels and other tourist areas, “appears to be very high.”

* The badly funded police are generally ineffective in stemming street crime and sometimes openly solicit bribes to facilitate an investigation.


* Motorbike riders are known to rip valuables from pedestrians and people riding in pedicabs, sometimes cutting purse straps with a knife.

* Frequently the consulate is not notified when a U.S. citizen is arrested.

* “As it is almost impossible to prevent street crime” in Ho Chi Minh City, the report concludes, “one should go out with only what one can afford to lose.”

India: Tourism officials are concerned that recent attacks on Christians, including the murder of an Australian missionary and his two sons, could frighten away tourists. Graham Staines and his sons Philip, 10, and Timothy, 8, died last month when a mob torched the car in which they slept in the eastern state of Orissa. A day later, five Christian missionaries were beaten up as they distributed leaflets on the banks of the Ganges in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Since Christmas Day, the Reuters news service reports, alleged right-wing Hindu activists have stepped up attacks on the minority Christian community, burning churches and terrorizing nuns and priests, mostly in the western state of Gujarat.


South Africa: Following two bombings of a popular Cape Town tourist area in less than five months, the government is drafting legislation that would give police broader powers against terrorists. Last August, a bomb exploded inside a Planet Hollywood restaurant on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a complex of restaurants, bars, shops and hotels. The blast killed two people and injured 26, including members of a visiting British family. On New Year’s Day, a car bomb exploded in a parking lot at the waterfront, injuring two passersby. Police have attributed the bombings to Muslim extremists.

Briefly . . .

Indonesia: Foreigners fled the eastern region once known as the Spice Islands last month after at least 45 people were killed in Muslim-Christian fighting. Political violence has recently hit Jakarta, the capital, and all the major islands. Since the situation could remain unstable until parliamentary elections in June, the State Department recommends that Americans “consider carefully whether to travel to Indonesia during this period.” . . . Italy: Thousands of Milan residents took to the streets last month to denounce the surge in violent crime in Italy’s financial capital, which registers 40 killings a year and twice as many store robberies as Rome. According to a business association poll, 60% of Milanese are afraid to go out at night. The government blames the Albanian mafia, and many residents blame the flood of illegal immigrants. . . . Yemen: The United States issued a travel warning on Yemen as Britain closed its cultural centers there and began recalling staff members from the country where Britons were kidnapped and killed in the last two months. Kidnappers released a British couple and a Dutch family of four, but two Germans were still held by mountain men. . . . Mexico: Caltrans is starting a publicity campaign warning U.S. citizens that anyone who carries a gun into Mexico risks imprisonment. About 200 Americans were arrested in Mexico last year for carrying weapons across the border, more than twice the number arrested the previous year.

Hot spots: Citing an outbreak of fighting on the border with Eritrea, the State Department has added Ethiopia to its list of places considered dangerous for Americans. Yemen (see above) has also been added. Others on the travel-warning list are Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Congo (formerly Zaire), Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Montserrat, Nigeria, Pakistan, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Rwanda, Serbia and Montenegro, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Tajikistan.

The U.S. State Department offers recorded travel warnings and advisories at (202) 647-5225; the fax line is (202) 647-3000. Internet address is