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Kurds Seethe at Turkey's Isolation of Former Separatist Rebel Leader

Officials blame the weather in denying lawyers for Abdullah Ocalan access to his island prison. Militants threaten return to arms.

February 01, 2003|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ISTANBUL, Turkey — A Kurdish rebel group has threatened to resume its armed campaign against Turkish security forces because the government refuses to grant its imprisoned leader access to his lawyers and family.

Lawyers for Abdullah Ocalan, the sole inmate of an island prison off Istanbul, said Friday that they had not seen their client since Nov. 27, the same day Turkey's new government, formed by the conservative Justice and Development Party, received its parliamentary vote of confidence.

"Our leader is being treated with unprecedented atrocity," Osman Ocalan, the rebel leader's brother and deputy, told the Kurdish-language news channel Medya TV in an interview last month from his mountain base in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

"The isolation policy pursued with regard to our leader constitutes a war," he said, blaming Turkey for seeking to provoke renewed fighting.

Turkish officials blame the weather for preventing access to Abdullah Ocalan, a claim his representatives reject.

"The government claims we cannot travel to the island because of poor weather conditions," said Aysel Tugluk, one of more than 150 lawyers defending Ocalan. "We checked with the state meteorology office -- they are lying."

Ocalan's supporters worry about his health, which his lawyers cannot monitor because they are denied access. Like many Kurds interviewed here, Tugluk sees a link between Ocalan's isolation and the role Turkey is shaping for itself in a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq.

"By creating fears about Ocalan," she said, "they hope to provoke a fresh war with the Kurds so they can have a pretext for sending their troops into northern Iraq, where the majority of Kurdish armed forces are based."

A Western diplomat, who declined to be identified, said, "We know that Turkey is itching for an excuse to go into northern Iraq, if only to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from establishing an independent state there."

But Hasim Hasimi, a prominent Kurdish politician disagrees.

"What we are witnessing is ultranationalist forces within the new government, who simply want to give Ocalan a hard time," he said.

Turkish security officials say they have several thousand troops in the Kurdish enclave to hunt down rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Turkey says if there is a war against Iraq, it will need to send in reinforcements to prevent a repetition of what took place during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when more than a million Kurdish refugees flooded this country and Iran.

The Bush administration is reportedly open to the idea as long as Turkey allows U.S. ground troops to open a northern front by traveling through Turkish territory to Iraq.

Ocalan, who founded the PKK, led a 15-year armed campaign for independence for Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds until he was captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya in 1999. The insurgency, waged in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeastern provinces and in the mountains of northern Iraq, claimed nearly 40,000 lives.

After being sentenced to death by hanging on treason charges following his courtroom trial in June 1999, Ocalan abandoned demands for independence.

Declaring that cultural autonomy would satisfy the Kurds, he called on his fighters to end the war and to withdraw to northern Iraq, where about 5,000 PKK fighters are based.

Ocalan's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after the Turkish parliament abolished the death penalty last year, a move designed to boost the country's efforts to join the European Union. Despite his captivity, Ocalan remains firmly in command of the PKK.

A rebel cease-fire in place since September 1999 has largely held. Yet in one of the most serious outbreaks of violence since, security forces clashed with rebels Jan. 16 in the southeastern township of Lice, about 125 miles from the Iraqi border, leaving at least seven Turkish soldiers dead. About a dozen rebels died in a retaliatory attack.

"We are extremely worried. Tension is escalating," said Mehmet Abbasoglu, chairman of a pro-Kurdish party known as Dehap. "People and security forces are ill at ease. The old days are coming back."

The PKK has accused Turkey of initiating the attacks, a charge Turkey denies.

In his interview, Osman Ocalan also called for nonviolent demonstrations to protest the lack of access to his brother.

According to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, nearly 300 Kurdish demonstrators have been detained recently and many of them have been beaten and tortured by security forces.

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