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Turkey: Capture Of Ocalan Deals Severe Blow To PKK

Prague, 16 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's capture of rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan deals a severe blow to his armed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which has been seeking an autonomous Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit announced in Ankara today that Ocalan had been brought to Turkey overnight and would, in his words, "account for his actions in front of the Turkish justice system."

Turkey has long considered Ocalan its most wanted man for leading the PKK in an almost 15-year war with Ankara in which some 30,000 people have died. The Turkish government considers him a terrorist and traitor, charges which under Turkish law are punishable by death.

Analysts say that the capture of Ocalan represents a key and unexpected victory for Ankara against the PKK, which had already been weakened by the defection and capture of its leading military commander last year.

Alan Makovsky, an expert on Kurdish affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C., says Ocalan is central to the PKK movement because he has provided it with charismatic leadership that until now has united its diverse factions. Makovsky spoke by telephone today with RFE/RL:

"The PKK is an organization about which very few people understand the internal workings, but what is clear is that Ocalan for his followers is a very charismatic figure, first of all, and secondly is a unifying figure in a movement which has a lot of factions, a lot of different ideological tendencies, a lot of disagreements about tactics. So I think there is a very good chance that the operation would splinter if he is not around."

Ocalan is the only leader the PKK has known and is considered to be highly dictatorial in his personal style. Correspondents say his arrest now raises the possibility of a prolonged power struggle within the movement over who will take his place. More radical factions within the PKK are likely to call for intensifying the movement's armed struggle against Ankara while moderates are said to favor developing political solutions.

The PKK, which Ocalan established in 1978, turned to armed struggle in 1984. Originally it sought independence for Turkish Kurds but in recent years it has said it aims for an autonomous Kurdish state or a federation with Turkey.

The capture of Ocalan comes at a particularly sensitive time for the PKK because it follows the loss of its chief military commander, Shamdeen Saqiq early last year. Saqiq broke with Ocalan and gave himself up to the Iraqi-Kurd Kurdistan Democratic Party, which has long fought with the PKK. Saqiq was subsequently kidnapped by Turkish special forces while travelling in northern Iraq.

Those reverses coincided with a series of steady battlefield setbacks for the PKK against Turkish troops in recent years. The movement lost rear bases in Syria in September when Turkey threatened military action against Syria if it did not evict Ocalan from his headquarters there. Ocalan had long been able to use his base across Turkey's southern border to direct his force of some 10,000 fighters in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey. Both Ankara and the PKK have accused each other of targeting civilians in their struggle.

The loss of Syria as a rear base was compounded that same month when northern Iraq's two key Kurdish factions signed a Washington-brokered peace agreement which, among other things, also excludes the PKK from operating there.

Makovsky calls the PKK's loss of Saqiq, its key rear bases and now its supreme leader Ocalan, a series of blows that would be difficult for any organization to take. But he says that the setbacks are not likely to lead the militant Kurdish movement to decide to abandon armed struggle with Ankara. Makovsky said:

"The PKK has been synonymous with the militant [branch of the] Kurdish movement, so I think there is a very good chance that [Ocalan's] long-term incarceration would be a very serious setback ... [But] that is not to say that suddenly Kurds will decide this struggle is not worth it ... I think the movement in some form will continue and it does seem to have a lot of money behind it.

However, Makovsky predicts that its going to be difficult for the PKK to continue waging the kind of war that it has been waging in the 1990's.