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Turkey's Arrest of Rebel Kurd Ignites Explosion of Rage

Europe: Abdullah Ocalan, his country's most wanted man, is flown back from Kenya. Supporters protest in two dozen cities, occupying embassies and taking hostages.

February 17, 1999|AMBERIN ZAMAN and RICHARD BOUDREAUX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANKARA, Turkey — 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

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