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Turkey: PKK Protests Seek Western Support For Ocalan

Prague, 17 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's arrest of rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has sparked a global wave of violent protests by militant Kurds who hope to press Western governments to intervene on his behalf.

With what seemed like extraordinary coordination, thousands of Kurdish protestors seized consulates, held rallies and battled police yesterday in Paris, Moscow, London, Frankfurt, Milan, Bern, and a dozen other cities across Europe. The protests also reached to Montreal, Vancouver, Sydney, Vladivostok, and Yerevan.

They continued today, and three Kurds were killed after Israeli security guards opened fire as the Kurds stormed the Israeli consulate in Berlin. The Kurds were apparently responding to reports -- denied by Israel -- that Israeli intelligence aided Turkey in apprehending Ocalan.

Yesterday, demonstrators seized hostages at Greek missions in the Netherlands and Switzerland before releasing them after several hours. Three protestors set themselves alight in Europe and dozens more threatened mass suicide as police fought to evict them.

The protests specifically targeted Greek and Kenyan missions because Ocalan was arrested in Nairobi after leaving the Greek embassy, where he had been in hiding for 12 days. Details of why Ocalan left the embassy and how he was subsequently captured by Turkish agents remain unclear, but many of the protestors accuse both Athens and Nairobi of complicity.

William Hale -- an expert on Turkish and Kurdish affairs at London University's School of Oriental Studies -- says the worldwide scope of the protests is a measure both of the number of supporters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Kurdish diaspora and their high degree of organization:

"There was probably an element of spontaneity there, but the fact that they did happen all at once and in so many diverse places and that they were all directed at Greek [and Kenyan] embassies abroad suggests ... the PKK still retains quite an impressive organization in the diaspora and evidently some sort of command structure which enables it to launch this kind of campaign."

Some one million Kurds live in Europe, with almost 400,000 Kurds in Germany alone. Many of those in Germany are migrants or descendants of migrants who were hired as "guest workers" to provide labor during its post-World War II boom. Others are more recent refugees from the continuing conflict in southeastern Turkey, where 15 years of fighting between the PKK and Turkish troops has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.

It is unknown how many active sympathizers the PKK commands within the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, which also includes Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Iran. The PKK -- which was founded in 1978 -- turned to armed struggle in 1984. Originally, it sought independence for Turkish Kurds. In recent years, it has said it aims for an autonomous Kurdish state or a federation with Turkey.

Hale predicts that Europe will see more street protests in the months ahead as Turkey puts Ocalan on trial on charges of being a traitor and terrorist. Both charges are punishable by death. Hale -- speaking from Istanbul -- told RFE/RL:

"What I think [Ocalan's supporters] are going to try to do is persuade Western opinion that if Abdullah Ocalan is tried here in Turkey, then it won't be a free trial ... they will also try to get Western governments to press that if he is found guilty, then he should not receive the death sentence."

The analyst says that -- although Turkey has the death sentence -- no executions have been carried out over the last 14 years. He says that both the Turkish parliament and the president also have the power to commute death sentences to life imprisonment.

The PKK in recent years has sought to use its presence in Europe to launch an international political offensive to bring more international pressure to bear on Ankara to end the war in southeastern Turkey. The Marxist-oriented PKK has long enjoyed support from Communist and left-wing political parties in several European countries -- particularly Italy -- though many European governments and the United States consider it a terrorist organization.

The drive to more strongly involve Europe seemed to become a major part of the PKK's policy when Syria evicted Ocalan from his traditional headquarters there under Turkish pressure. The eviction began a long odyssey by Ocalan across Europe in search of political asylum, taking him to Russia, Italy and -- according to recent news reports -- the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and eastern Germany.

Ocalan's capture by Turkey has dashed PKK hopes that Ocalan can himself play a role in lobbying Western countries to find a political solution to the Kurdish question. Hale says that leaves the PKK at a turning point in its relations with Europe:

"The PKK must be wondering at the moment where it goes from here. The guerilla war inside Turkey itself seems to be lost. On the other hand, their political campaign originally was based on the idea of having Abdullah Ocalan there [in Europe] as a leader and present him in a new guise as a peaceful political leader similar to [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat. But that strategy evidently failed, and they must be considering what to do next."

Hale says the PKK leadership has looked at Western intervention in conflicts like those in Bosnia and Kosovo as precedents for what it hopes will be European readiness to broker peace in southeastern Turkey.

But the analyst says European governments are reluctant to get that involved. He says Western governments regard Turkey as an important member of NATO, playing an essential role in Western policies, particularly in the Middle East and toward Iraq. It is also an important economic power for Europe.

For all these reasons, he says, European governments would be reluctant to push Ankara too far over the Kurdish question out of fear of alienating it on other foreign policy issues.