A Kurd's arrest rattles Europe
Turkey's capture of Kurdish separatist leader touches off protests Feb.16 by Kurds across continent.
PARIS — Kurdish protesters stormed Greek embassies and consulates across Europe Feb. 16 in a dramatic and concerted display of anger by the most militant ethnic minority on the continent.
The demonstrators, who seized hostages in Greek diplomatic compounds from The Hague to Vienna, were protesting the capture of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish officials late Feb. 15 in Nairobi, Kenya. Mr. Ocalan had been given temporary asylum by the Greek ambassador in Nairobi two weeks ago.
Turkish premier Bulent Ecevit announced that Ocalan had been captured after a covert operation and that he would "pay his accounts to the independent Turkish courts."
Ocalan, considered a terrorist by the Turkish government for his leadership of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrilla group, could face the death penalty if convicted.
In the wake of military setbacks, the PKK has been waging a diplomatic campaign in Europe for some time, rallying international support behind its struggle for independence from Turkish rule.
Drawing on a sizable Kurdish population on the continent, the movement has set up a satellite TV station and a Kurdish "Parliament in Exile" in Brussels, among other elements in a close-knit wide-ranging organization.
Although the PKK is on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations, its campaign has attracted a number of high-profile supporters in Europe, including Danielle Mitterrand, a human rights activist and widow of former French President Franois Mitterrand. Ocalan appeared eager to pursue a political and diplomatic path when he sought to visit Europe last November, but he was denied permission to stay.
SOME 400,000 Kurds - out of a total of 3 million Turkish workers - are estimated to live in Europe. The bulk of them are in Germany, but they have spread to almost every country, as the embassy occupations showed. Greek and Kenyan diplomatic missions were attacked in London, Moscow, Brussels, Vienna, Paris, Bonn, Milan, Geneva, Copenhagen, and The Hague, among other locations.
Most of the Kurds are immigrant workers, but several thousand have been offered political asylum by European governments, especially in Scandinavia. Analysts have noted a heightened degree of political activism recently, and the wave of embassy takeovers within hours of Ocalan's arrest illustrates a high level of international coordination.
"Over the past few months, the Ocalan affair has led to a certain politicization of the Kurdish population," says Sami Vaner, an expert on Turkish affairs with the Center for International Studies and Research, a Paris-based think tank. "Now you have a Kurdish community politically favorable to the PKK."
Ocalan's search for a haven over the past several months has also brought into focus the awkwardness of Europe's ambivalent relationship with Turkey - a NATO ally but not regarded as "one of us." This is partly because of the serious human rights violations that the Turkish Army has committed in its battle against the PKK in southeastern Turkey, destroying some 3,000 Kurdish villages and displacing tens of thousands of people. As many as 29,000 people have died in the conflict.
Turkish resentment of European attitudes reached new heights two years ago when the European Union refused to set a target date for Ankara's entry into the 15-member organization, while offering such a prospect to several former Communist nations in Eastern Europe. It boiled over last autumn, when the Italian government refused to hand over Ocalan on grounds that Italian law forbids extradition to a country where the death penalty is on the statute book.
At the same time, however, the Rome government - apparently reluctant to incur too much Turkish diplomatic wrath - also refused to give Ocalan the political asylum he had requested.
Nor would any other European government offer him a haven after Turkey went on the diplomatic offensive last October, threatening Syria with war unless it expelled Ocalan from his base.
Turkey's hard line, hounding Ocalan from Syria to Russia to Greece to Italy, and finally to Kenya, follows a string of military successes on the ground. Last year, in one of their frequent cross-border raids on PKK bases in northern Iraq, Turkish troops captured the organization's second-in-command.
The group is reported to be riven by internal divisions, and although Ocalan's capture "will not finish off the PKK, it will be a severe blow," says one Turkish defense analyst.
It is ironic that the Kurds turned their fury on Greek embassies, since Greece has been the country most sympathetic to the Kurdish cause. At odds with neighbor and rival Turkey over Cyprus, Greece has adopted the "enemy of your enemy is your friend" principle, and reportedly provided secret military training for Kurdish guerrillas at a base outside Athens.
But even Greece was not willing to give Ocalan asylum when he asked for it last autumn, and again this month. Instead, Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos acknowledged Feb. 16, Athens allowed Ocalan's plane to refuel on a Greek island and to fly on to Nairobi, where he was offered refuge at the embassy for two weeks.
He said that Ocalan had left the embassy the night of Feb. 15 against Greek advice, and had then been in the care of the Kenyan authorities. Kenyan officials denied any role in the affair, claiming they had merely asked Greece to remove Ocalan from the country when they discovered that he was being harbored at the embassy in Nairobi.
*Staff writer Scott Peterson in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.