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Turkey/Italy: Questions Surround Ocalan's Future

By Jamie Paton

Prague, 2 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini emerged from a meeting with Russian officials in Moscow this week, saying the two sides had "exchanged information" about Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan's mysterious journey to Rome.

Dini, however, would not say whether Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov provided answers to troubling questions that have plagued Italy for more than two weeks.

Italy wants to know how Russia allowed a guerrilla leader allegedly responsible for tens of thousands of deaths to flee to Rome on a flight from Moscow -- forcing Italy to sit at the center of a tense international dispute.

Italian police arrested Ocalan on November 12 after his plane landed in Rome, ending months of speculation about his whereabouts. But Ocalan's re-appearance sparked a bitter feud among several NATO member states, drawing them into a debate over his future.

Italian officials refuse to send Ocalan to Turkey because of a law prohibiting the extradition of a suspect to a country that has the death penalty.

Germany could seek custody of Ocalan because he has been charged there with murder and arson. But German officials have indicated they will not seek extradition, fearing that might ignite unrest among the large numbers of Kurds and Turks living in their country. Bonn's refusal to request extradition has angered Rome, which detained Ocalan based on a German arrest warrant.

Italy and Germany clearly do not want the Ocalan burden to fall solely on their shoulders and have considered the idea of a trial before an international court. Ankara has reacted angrily to the idea.

Turkey would welcome the opportunity to deal with Ocalan at home. Turkish authorities have been searching for the alleged terrorist since Syria, under Turkish pressure, forced him in early October to leave his stronghold in Damascus.

They claim Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, is responsible for orchestrating the murders of about 30,000 people and sponsoring terrorism during a 14-year conflict with Turkish forces.

Turkish leaders have made clear that the matter is a high priority. They threatened last month to impose economic sanctions on Italy if it failed to turn him over, alienating the European Union, which said it supports Italy's decision to abide by its laws.

While tension over the Ocalan issue escalates, questions surrounding his exodus from Syria to Italy remain -- in part because no government has wanted to be openly associated with the 50-year-old rebel.

Although it is widely accepted that Ocalan had long found shelter in Syria, the Syrian government continued to deny reports of his presence. Russia, like Syria, refused to acknowledge Ocalan had walked on its soil. And Turkey also suspected Ocalan had spent some time in Armenia, but both the Armenian government and Ocalan dismissed the report.

Yado Roz, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Information Center in London, told RFE/RL this week that the denials came despite what he said is international support for Turkish Kurds.

"I'm sure there are people in the (Russian) government who feel sympathy for the Kurdish cause, but the most important thing for us is that politically, they recognize there are Kurds in Turkey and that Kurds are oppressed in Turkey and that some self-rule should be given to the Kurds in Turkey...But I'm sure in all the governments of the world, there are people who have sympathy for the Kurdish struggle."

But Russia did not welcome Ocalan with open arms. In an interview published in a Russian newspaper last week, Ocalan revealed how he dodged authorities.

In the daily Kommersant report, Ocalan claimed he had arrived in Moscow on October 9 using a fake passport with the name Abdullah Sarokurda, which means leader of the Kurds. But he said Prime Minister Primakov had refused to grant him asylum after succumbing to political pressure from the U.S. and Turkey.

Ocalan also told Kommersant he had been hiding in the suburb of Odintsovo, about 10 kilometers outside Moscow, and had fled to other former Soviet republics, although he would n-o-t reveal which ones.

Primakov vowed last month he would n-o-t allow Ocalan to find refuge in Russia, despite an overwhelming show of support from the Duma, which voted 298-1 in favor of granting Ocalan asylum.

So now, Italy must deal with the Kurdish leader. Roz said it is no surprise that Ocalan chose Rome as his next stop during his flight from Turkish authorities.

"All of the support that existed in Italy for many years in public opinion and political parties had led Mr. Ocalan to the conclusion he could go to Italy, and he would be safe in Italy."

December 22 is the last day of a 40-day period during which extradition requests can be received. It remains unclear how the elusive Ocalan avoided authorities for so long, and despite a looming extradition deadline in Italy, it's even more uncertain how Ocalan's future will unfold.