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Turkey: Dispute Over Ocalan Involves All Europe

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 20 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The already bitter quarrel between Italy and Turkey over whether Rome should extradite Turkish-Kurd leader Abdullah Ocalan to Ankara seems likely to escalate after an Italian court today freed Ocalan from detention.

The decision by Rome's Court of Appeal overrules an international arrest warrant for Ocalan. While freeing the Kurdish leader, the court ordered him to stay in Rome, with restrictions on his movements.

Even before today's ruling, the dispute between Ankara and Rome was rapidly moving beyond the two countries to take in their neighbors and allies.

Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema yesterday called for other European capitals to show solidarity with Italy's position. Italy says that it should n-o-t bend its laws just to satisfy Turkish demands to extradite Ocalan, who was arrested in Rome last week after arriving on a flight from Moscow.

Italy's legal system does not permit extradition to countries which have the death penalty, as does Turkey. Ocalan is Turkey's most wanted rebel. He is the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought Ankara for 14 years for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey.

The Italian Prime Minister said yesterday that the increasingly rancorous dispute, in his words, "is not about Italy and Turkey." Rather, he said, "it involves all of Europe, from which we expect total solidarity." He also said that Rome already has gotten signs of encouragement from its European Union partners and is expecting more tangible political gestures.

Rome's plea for support came after Washington said it backs Turkey's demand to extradite Ocalan to its territory. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said that Washington hopes "a way will be found to extradite him to Turkey." Both Ankara and Washington have long accused Ocalan of being a terrorist.

As the battle over Ocalan broadens, the PKK leader himself is only adding fuel to the fire. Speaking from a military hospital south of Rome where he was held for eight days, Ocalan said he came to Italy, in his phrase, to "push Europe to get involved" in the Kurdish issue.

He also said that his flight to Italy was part of a change of strategy for Kurdish rebels, who traditionally have fought their war with Turkey using rear bases in Syria and northern Iraq. Ocalan was forced to leave his base in Syria last month when Ankara threatened military action against Damascus if it did not evict him.

Yado Roz, a spokesman for the London-based Kurdish Information Center, which supports the Marxist-oriented PKK, says Ocalan's flight to Italy heralds a new diplomatic drive by the rebels to push Europe into mediating a peaceful solution in southeastern Turkey.

"Ocalan's arrival in Europe means that the PKK will put more weight on the political field, the diplomatic field. The arrival of Ocalan also means that the PKK will give more attention to a political solution to the Kurdish question. It also means that the PKK is becoming more international (and that) the PKK becomes more acceptable since Ocalan has arrived in the West and is ready to talk with Western countries for a peaceful solution." Immediately upon arriving in Italy on a flight from Moscow, Ocalan requested political asylum. If he obtains it, he could secure a far better base than he had in Syria to meet with European parties and governments.

Leftists in Italy's coalition government are already pressing D'Alema, a former communist, to grant Ocalan asylum. The Prime Minister has said that if Ocalan seriously renounces terrorism Italy will consider his request.

Italy's influential daily "La Repubblica" this week quoted Ocalan as saying in an interview that the PKK has abandoned terrorism and is ready for a peace accord.

Roz says that Ocalan deliberately chose to relocate to Italy because the PKK has close ties with Leftist Italian parties.

"We have had very good relations since quite a long time with the Italian political parties and Italian NGOs (non-governmental organizations). So, it is the result of a very long ongoing process. It is not a decision taken by chance....I don't think he has been forced out of Moscow....Italy was the best choice for Mr. Ocalan.... There are quite a lot of other countries where he has the possibility to go and be accepted."

Analysts say that Ocalan may have decided the time is ripe to appeal to Europe in his struggle with Ankara because the 15-nation EU has refused to consider Turkey as a candidate for membership until it improves its human-rights record. EU reports have frequently stressed the importance of a civilian solution to the conflict in southeastern Turkey, saying many violations of civil and political rights are connected with it.

But if Ocalan wants to embrace Europe, most European governments still seem to want to steer clear of him. The PKK leader was detained in Italy on an international arrest warrant issued by Germany on charges he ordered the killing years ago of a Kurdish rival there.

Germany today declared that it would not seek Ocalan's extradition for the time being. A government spokesman (Uwe-Karsten Heye) said that Germany did not want "to jeopardize or damage the situation," adding that its "request for extradition has been put on hold." Some analysts say that Bonn fears stirring up trouble in its own large community of Turks and Turkish-Kurds, estimated at about two million.

Meanwhile, Ankara continues to harden its demands on Italy to turn over Ocalan. Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz told the Turkish parliament earlier this week that if Italy fails to extradite Ocalan, in his words, "no government of the Turkish Republic would ever forget this." And today President Suleyman Demirel warned European nations not to back militant Kurdish separatism, saying such support could, in his phrase, "destabilize Turkey and turn it into (another) Yugoslavia."