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17 February 1999

Who's behind the Ocalan witch-hunt?

Dominic Standish reports from Italy on how the US government has called the shots over the arrest of Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan

On Tuesday, Europe was unprepared for the protests launched by Kurds. Greek embassies were invaded in Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Russia and Belgium. Two Greek diplomatic missions in Germany were occupied, as was the Greek consulate in Marseille in France. Forty protestors entered the United Nations building in Geneva, and in Vienna the Kenyan embassy was set on fire and the Greek ambassador, his wife and three others were taken hostage.

The protests followed Abdullah Ocalan's extradition to Turkey to face charges of treason and possibly the death sentence. Ocalan has been seeking an international solution to the war between the Kurds and the Turkish state that has killed an estimated 30 000 people. After 14 years of fighting for self-determination, Ocalan proposed a peace plan and called for UN and EU supervision to facilitate a peace process similar to those in Northern Ireland and Spain.

Ocalan has discovered that unless such a peace process fits the agenda of Western powers, especially America, it's 'peace off'. He was arrested in Kenya's capital Nairobi on 15 February. He had previously been held in a Greek diplomatic building for two weeks after requesting asylum with Turkey's traditional adversary. But it seems that Ocalan overestimated Greece and Turkey's conflict over issues like Cyprus and underestimated who was really calling the shots: America.

Last autumn, his requests for asylum in Syria and Russia were rejected before he flew to Italy, where he stayed for two months. America demanded Ocalan's extradition to Turkey. But the Italian constitution forbids extradition to countries where the death penatly exists. Germany quickly dropped two warrants for Ocalan's arrest to prevent extradition to Germany. So the Italians encouraged him to leave. Rome's Court of Appeal set Ocalan free because the German arrest warrants had been dropped. Despite being under informal house arrest and holding a false passport, he was allowed to leave Italy on 16 January.

During Ocalan's Italian sojourn, Spain, France, Germany and Italy supported the idea of an international trial to launch a peace process. The Council of Europe began its investigations on 21 December. But US pressure meant this plan was deprioritised.

Turkey's position as the only Islamic member of NATO means that it has traditionally been a key US ally. Turkey has fought against the Kurds with US acquiescence. Incidents such as last year's invasion of northern Iraq by 25 000 Turkish troops pursuing Kurds rarely make the headlines. But the Ocalan issue has coincided with American and British bombings in Iraq. With little international support for the attacks, Turkey's help has been vital. As this war has continued over the past two months, US and UK forces have flown from the Incirlik NATO base in Turkey to bomb within the northern Iraq's 'no-fly zone'.

With Turkey's support so important to America, there was no way a peace process would be considered for Turkey's most wanted enemy. Ocalan's eventual capture was made inevitable by a proscriptive statement from US state department spokesman, James Rubin, on 1 February:

'In addition to denying terrorists such as Ocalan safe haven, refuge or asylum, countries should take steps consistent with their national legal system to assist Turkey's efforts to bring Ocalan to justice.'

It may have been the Greek government that was last sheltering Ocalan before his arrest, which is why Kurds have targeted Greek embassies for protests. But it would be more appropriate for them to demonstrate against the Turkish government which continues to oppress Kurds, and the US government which is calling the shots.

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