Athens, 17 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The arrest of Turkish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan by Turkey after he left the haven of the Greek embassy in Kenya has sparked strong criticism of the Greek prime minister by opponents in and outside his party.
Many Greeks, including some key members of Prime Minister Costas Simitis's socialist PASOK party, see Ocalan as a hero. They compare the struggle of Ocalan's armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) against Ankara for an autonomous Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey with Greece's own war for independence from the Ottoman Empire early last century.
PASOK deputy Christos Kipouros told Greek television that losing Ocalan to Turkey will be viewed by many Greeks as a major defeat. He called it the most humiliating moment in Greece's history.
The Greek Communist Party dubbed Ocalan's capture a "gangster-like kidnapping," while the New Democracy Party called it "inhuman."
The Greek government rushed to defend its role in the case, whose details still are only beginning to emerge.
Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos told a press conference in Athens that Ocalan had spent 12 days at the Greek embassy in Nairobi "as a guest" after the aircraft he had been flying in was allowed to land in Greece and fly on to Kenya.
He also said that Ocalan left the embassy of his own free will yesterday in spite of strict warnings not to and the embassy then lost track of the PKK leader's whereabouts. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit revealed yesterday that Ocalan had later been spirited out of Nairobi to Turkey and will now stand trial as a terrorist.
Pangalos sought to distance Athens from the developments surrounding Ocalan, telling reporters that, in his words, "the events clearly prove Greece should not have become a part of this conflict...which was not and should not become our affair."
He also said that any transformation of the Kurdish problem into a Greek-Turkish dispute would have only benefited the enemies of the Kurdish people and democracy.
The Greek foreign minister told the press that Greece had let Ocalan's plane land to refuel in Greece but told him at the time that he could not stay in Greece before allowing him to continue on to Kenya. Pangalos said that the Greek embassy in Nairobi offered Ocalan a place to stay only for humanitarian reasons.
Greek government spokesman Dimtiris Reppas said yesterday that the abduction of Ocalan was the "responsibility of the Kenyan government." Reppas also criticized Ocalan for not taking necessary precautions for his own safety in Nairobi.
Foreign Minister Pangalos lashed out at Ocalan's Kurdish supporters for seizing Greek embassies across Europe, saying the taking of diplomats hostage was, in his words, barbaric. Kurdish protestors took five hostages at the Greek mission in Vienna, including the ambassador and his wife. Protestors also took the wife and eight-year-old son of the Greek ambassador hostage in the ambassador's residence in The Hague.
As Pangalos gave his press conference, security police arrested 12 Kurds who were staging a hunger protest outside the Greek parliament. Two Kurds immolated themselves before the building last night and were taken to hospital for treatment.
The arrests bring to 80 the number of arrests outside the Greek parliament since yesterday. According to Greek police, the latest arrests were prompted by fears that other protestors would seek to set themselves ablaze. Analysts say that the government's efforts to explain that the Ocalan affair is not a Greek issue are not likely to end anger among Simitis's opponents.
The prime minister is already under fierce domestic attack for seeking to put Greece into the European mainstream by reforming the economy. He has sunk in opinion polls as unions, students and farmers have protested his policies.
Correspondents say that it is still too soon to measure the political fallout in Athens from the Ocalan affair. But they note that it does not take much for an issue relating to Greek nationalism to cause problems for Greek politicians.
Simitis was widely criticized as bowing to Turkish demands late last year when Athens offered a compromise solution to a longstanding conflict between Greece's ally Cyprus and Turkey over Nicosia's planned deployment of Russian missiles.
Ankara had threatened military action against Nicosia if it took delivery of the Russian weapons and deployed them on the Greek-Cypriot side of the divided island. But Greece made a compromise offer to hold the missiles for Nicosia on Crete instead. Turkey has so far rejected the Greek offer.