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Anatomy of Kurd Leader’s Capture

February 20, 1999

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ For months he had been on the run, growing ever more furious and desperate as the doors of country after country were closed to him. In the end, it all unraveled swiftly and far from home.

As a hot day faded into dusk in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi last Monday, the liberty of Abdullah Ocalan _ revered by Turkish Kurds as the leader of their fight for autonomy, reviled by Turkey as a prime instigator of a bloody war of insurrection that has claimed some 37,000 lives _ was in its twilight as well.

In short order, he would find himself handcuffed, blindfolded with tape and strapped to a seat aboard a sleek French-made Falcon 900B jet on loan from a Turkish businessman/sometime politician, flying north through night skies to Turkey, where he faced interrogation, imprisonment and perhaps death by hanging.

The odyssey of Ocalan’s flight and final capture _ at times tense and at times farcical, its deadly seriousness at odds with a series of almost comedic pratfalls _ was also a fable of modern geopolitics.

In many of the countries where his bid for refuge was rebuffed, there was genuine sympathy for the cause of his stateless people, the Kurds. And whether or not their governments agreed that Ocalan was a terrorist _ or more significantly, one who deserved to be brought to Turkish justice _ coolly pragmatic national interests prevailed again and again in turning him away.

It was well into the seven-hour flight from Kenya _ closing in on Turkish airspace _ when the captive awoke from a drugged sleep, by one Turkish newspaper’s account. A Turkish military videotape showed the sweat-drenched, dazed-looking Ocalan, his heavy features sullen and swollen, wincing as the tape that had blindfolded him was cut and torn away.

``Welcome to your country,″ one of his captors, a commando from an elite Turkish unit sarcastically told the 49-year-old warlord.

From Ocalan, perhaps the most hated man in Turkey, almost universally known among non-Kurds as ``bebek katili″ _ baby killer _ came the reply: ``I love my country.″


That Ocalan (pronounced OH-jah-lahn) was at last in Turkish hands was testament to an extraordinary months-long campaign by the Ankara government, involving concerted diplomatic appeals, selective military threats, warnings of economic repercussions and judicious cashing in of political chips. Turkey is far from a superpower, but it deftly played the hand it held.

The United States _ which lent key support when it joined with Turkey in branding Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party a terror group _ is indebted to Turkey as a staging ground for U.S. airstrikes against Iraq. That, coupled with the heavy U.S. law-enforcement presence in Nairobi since the July bombing of the American embassy there, raised suspicions that America repaid the favor by helping track Ocalan down.

Turkey’s prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, said a nation, which he wouldn’t name, had provided such assistance, and Washington issued only a carefully couched denial of involvement in the actual abduction.

Greece, with whom Turkey has several times gone to the brink of war in the last quarter-century, had good reason to heed warnings that harboring Ocalan would be considered sufficient provocation to battle. It sheltered him only briefly in early February before sending him off to Kenya, where he took his final refuge at the Greek diplomatic compound in suburban Nairobi.

The threat of force also proved effective in the case of Syria, which had long been Ocalan’s base. It expelled him in October, which began his five months of fruitless wandering. He ricocheted from one country to another, barely able to obtain permission to stay long enough to refuel his plane, let alone settle in.

Even friendly and well-off neighbors were reminded of the importance of their trade ties with Turkey. When Ocalan sought asylum in Italy, Turks launched an unofficial boycott of Italian goods. Despite the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country’s staunch opposition to capital punishment, and the knowledge that Ocalan faced possible execution, Italy turned him away in mid-January after hosting him for two months.

Time, and potential safe havens, had all but run out.


Ocalan, it would seem, was the houseguest from hell.

At the Greek ambassador’s residence in the northern Nairobi neighborhood of Muthaiga, full of stately homes screened by high walls or hedges, accounts of his stay suggest scant regard for secrecy, or the jangled sensibilities of his hosts.

Behind the black metal gate surrounded by pink bougainvillea blossoms, there was mounting panic on the Greeks’ part as Ocalan strolled in the garden, chattered away on his mobile telephone and made unauthorized contacts with Kenyan officials and his lawyers.

``Ocalan,″ Greek government spokesman Dimitris Reppas observed glumly, ``did not take the necessary security measures.″

For a man who was the target of an international manhunt, Ocalan was oddly incautious about covering his tracks. He reportedly used a forged Greek Cypriot passport bearing the name of Lazaros Mavros, a well-known radio and TV commentator who has actively supported the Kurdish cause.

Ecevit, the Turkish prime minister, said his government was tipped on Feb. 4 that Ocalan was in Africa and immediately began making plans to bring him back. A tight circle of top Turkish officials oversaw preparations, he said, but refused to give any details about outside assistance.

``We do not want to leave those who were part of this issue ... in difficult situations,″ he told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.

Inside the compound, with nerves fraying, a team led by the Greek Ambassador Giorgos Kostoulas presented Ocalan over the weekend with a list of options, attorney Failos Kranidiotis recounted later. He could hide out on a farm in Kenya, take shelter in a Greek church or go to another African country and continue trying to reach some asylum agreement.

By then, according to a government-owned Ugandan newspaper, the Turks’ chartered Falcon was standing by at Entebbe airport in neighboring Uganda, ready to spirit him away.

Accounts of Ocalan’s abrupt departure from the embassy grounds remain a mass of conflict and confusion. Greece’s foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos _ who would lose his job in fallout over the affair _ said Ocalan left voluntarily and against the advice of his Greek hosts.

But a Kenyan security guard at the residence, speaking on condition of anonymity, said men in Kenyan government vehicles forcibly removed three men from the compound Monday evening. The guard was not sure if Ocalan was among them, but a car carrying the Greek ambassador followed the convoy, with the envoy returning later in a taxi.

Ocalan’s Dutch lawyer, Britta Boehler, said he was dragged from the embassy and put on the plane to Turkey, while unconfirmed Turkish media reports said the Turkish commandos intercepted the car carrying him.

By the account of Kranidiotis, the lawyer, the last straw was just the sort of theatrical gesture that had come to characterize Ocalan’s ill-fated stay. One of Ocalan’s aides, frustrated by the delays, took out a gun and threatened suicide unless a haven was found for the rebel leader.

The sight of the weapon solidified their sense that things had spun out of control. Said Kranidiotis: ``He had to leave.″


In Turkey, word of Ocalan’s capture brought sheer jubilation. In one coastal town, families of soldiers slain in the Kurdish conflict folk-danced in the streets. Flowers piled up outside the prime minister’s office. The stock market jumped.

Video clips played over and over on Turkish TV showed Ocalan hooded and helpless, or sweating under bright lights.

The government sought to portray Ocalan _ who in fact never fought on the battlefield, running the war from his villa in Syria _ as an armchair guerrilla unworthy of his fighters’ loyalty.

``While you were fighting in the mountains, Ocalan was living in luxury,″ the prime minister said, urging the insurgents to accept a government offer of leniency in exchange for surrender. Turkish reports portrayed the rebel leader as a lout, a womanizer, mentally unstable.

The show of undisguised glee over Ocalan’s capture, though, drew unease outside Turkey, where serious questions were already being raised about the country’s ability _ or willingness _ to give him a fair trial.

A week after his capture, held as the sole inmate on a forbidding prison island that was once a Byzantine stronghold, Ocalan was being questioned by prosecutors and still denied access to attorneys. His lawyer, Boehler, said from the Netherlands that she was sure he was being tortured, or would be.

The government, for its part, expressed irritation over outside concerns about its human rights record, a longstanding sore point.

Also causing concern were the scope and fury of Kurdish exiles’ demonstrations. Taking to the streets within hours of the capture, Kurds stormed more than 20 diplomatic missions, mainly Greek ones, from Brussels to Beirut.

Ocalan’s brother Osman, now said to be vying for rebel leadership, called on followers, who sometimes use self-immolation as a form of shock protest, to ``burn the enemy″ instead.

Any rejoicing, too, is tempered by the overwhelming sense of loss on both sides of the war. The mother of a slain Turkish soldier, Sahsene Kilicsoy, rushed to her son’s snowy graveside upon hearing of the capture, saying she wanted to ``share the news″ _ this wonderful news _ with her son.

Then she broke down in sobs.

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