Washington's hand seen in Ocalan's abduction

February 24, 1999

By Norm Dixon

The brazen February 15 abduction of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya by a squad of armed, balaclava-clad Turkish commandos has been greeted with fury by Kurds throughout the world. While all the details of the operation are yet to be made public, it is clear that the United States government played an instrumental role in Ocalan's capture.

Ocalan is the popular leader of the left-wing Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the party at the head of the Kurdish people's struggle for national self-determination in Turkey. He faces the death sentence on charges of "terrorism" and "treason".

Ocalan had sought refuge in the Nairobi residence of the Greek ambassador to Kenya while Athens searched for a country willing to offer the Kurdish leader sanctuary. When the Kenyan government was tipped off that Ocalan was there, it ordered Greece to remove him from Kenya. Athens complied and allowed Kenyan security police to take him to an airport to board a plane that Ocalan believed would take him to the Netherlands. While en route to the airport, Turkish commandos seized the rebel leader.

Greek foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos hinted that he believed the US had tipped off Kenya and Turkey to Ocalan's presence. Kenya is the CIA's African headquarters. Kenya denied involvement and placed the blame for Ocalan's arrest on Greece. PKK central committee member Nezamettin Tas accused the US, Israel and Turkey of collaborating to kidnap Ocalan.

On February 16, an United Press International dispatch reported that US officials had told the wire service that US intelligence agencies helped track the whereabouts of Ocalan and alerted the Turkish government of his presence in Nairobi about a week before the abduction.

The US government chose its words carefully when asked if it had played a role. State Department spokesperson James Foley on February 16 said only that the US did not play a "direct" role. White House spokesperson Joe Lockhart refused to rule out that the US played an "indirect" role. "I don't comment on intelligence matters", he said.

Foley did admit that Washington had made "extensive diplomatic efforts to bring [Ocalan] to justice. We have been in frequent diplomatic contact with all governments concerned ... ever since he turned up in Italy some months ago."

Turkey's media were more forthcoming as they gloated over Ocalan's capture. "Under pressure from Turkey and the United States", reported Hurriyet, a newspaper with close links to the Turkish military, "the Greek embassy was forced to release Ocalan ... The Kenyan security forces, in league with Turkish intelligence, diverted the car off in another direction" and seized the rebel leader.

Yeni Yuzyil reported that Washington helped Ankara catch Ocalan in return for refusing an Iraqi request that Turkey deny use of its Incirlik base for US air attacks on Iraq. As soon as Ankara rejected the request, the "CIA immediately informed Turkey of Apo's [Ocalan's] hiding place", reported Sabah newspaper.

According to a report in the February 18 London Times, US and Israeli intelligence services detected Ocalan's mobile phone conversations using US spy satellites, and pinpointed his location in Kenya.

National oppression

Kurds make up 20% of Turkey's population of about 60 million, with more than 12 million living in the south-east near the border with Iraq.

Kurdistan straddles northern Iraq, north-western Iran, northern Syria, south-eastern Turkey and parts of Armenia. The biggest portion lies within the borders of Turkey. Kurds account for about 23% of Iraq's population, about 10% of Iran's, and about 8% of Syria's. With some 30 million people, the Kurds are one of the largest nations in the world without a state.

The PKK, formed in 1978, launched an armed struggle in 1984 after it concluded that avenues for peaceful and legal struggle had been closed by the Turkish regime.

Successive Turkish regimes — both military and "civilian" — have attempted to crush the Kurdish struggle with scorched earth tactics, ethnic-cleansing and forced assimilation. Ankara has obliterated around 3000 villages and expelled 2 million villagers from the south-east. Military death squads routinely arrest and torture, murder or "disappear" those suspected of being PKK sympathisers.

Until 1991, all use of the Kurdish language was banned. It remains illegal for Kurdish to be used in publishing and broadcasting, and in educational and political institutions.

Since 1995, the Turkish military has launched annual invasions of southern Kurdistan (northern Iraq) to destroy the PKK and to sow terror among the large number of Kurdish refugees from Turkey living there. The large body counts of dead "terrorists" announced by the military are more often than not hapless refugees rather than PKK fighters.

The death toll since 1984 is estimated at between 29,000-37,000, the vast majority at the hands of the Turkish military. Ankara and Washington perversely claim that the PKK — and Ocalan personally — is responsible for this carnage.

This is the basis of the demonisation — enthusiastically endorsed ad nauseam by the capitalist mass media, Washington and other western governments — of Ocalan as a "terrorist", a "psychopath" and a "baby killer". Ocalan and the PKK's real crime is to fight for the rights of the Kurdish people.

European interests

The events that led to Ocalan's kidnapping in Kenya began on November 12 when he was arrested by Italian police, on a warrant issued by the German government, as he arrived at an airport in Rome. Ocalan asked for political asylum.

Ocalan had been forced to flee Syria after the Turkish government threatened war to pressure the Syrian government to deny PKK fighters sanctuary on its territory.

On November 16, Ocalan called for a "civilised solution to the real causes of war" in Kurdistan. "There can be no humane explanation for genocidal attacks on cultures and freedoms of peoples ... I am opposed to all terror, even if it originates from us. I am ready to do whatever I can so it can be stopped immediately", Ocalan pledged. "I have come to Italy to open the way to a political settlement. I want to create the political conditions for this."

Italy came under enormous pressure from the Turkish and US governments to extradite Ocalan to Turkey. Rome refused, citing a law that prevents extradition to countries that have capital punishment. Germany, wary of the reaction of its Kurdish population if it pressed for Ocalan's extradition to Germany, withdrew its arrest warrant. An Italian court then released Ocalan pending a decision on his request for asylum.

On January 16, Ocalan was forced to leave Italy after political asylum was refused. Since then, Ocalan has crisscrossed Europe in search of a country that would offer him asylum. At every turn, massive diplomatic pressure from Washington prevented governments from offering asylum, while at the same time none was prepared to send the rebel leader back to Turkey.

It seems Ocalan and the PKK gambled that it could take advantage of tensions between Europe and Washington, and win support from Europe for a negotiated settlement.

European governments are reluctant to accept Turkey into the European Union (EU) while the war in Kurdistan, which is estimated to cost Ankara US$10 million a day, continues. Military spending accounts for 40% of Turkey's budget and continues to blow-out its foreign debt. Such levels of spending and debt make Turkey an unattractive EU partner.

The war and the poverty it produces result in a constant flow of political and economic refugees into Europe, something the EU would like ended before barriers between Turkey and Europe are lowered. Major European powers are also uneasy about Ankara's close political and military alliance with the US.

Turkey, a member of NATO, has become increasingly central to US domination of the Middle East and central Asia. US warplanes based in Turkey patrol the "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq and Washington has cobbled together an uneasy alliance of conservative, anti-independence Kurdish factions to administer the area in the absence of the government Saddam Hussein. The pro-Turkey Kurdish Democratic Party dominates the alliance, with the Iran-backed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan the junior partner.


Crushing the PKK has become an important aspect of US policy in recent years because the party's militant and principled refusal to abandon its support for national self-determination — and its commitment to Marxism — stands in stark contrast to the KDP and PUK's self-serving compromises with Washington, Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran. The PKK has won considerable support in southern Kurdistan.

An independent Kurdistan in southern Turkey led by the anti-imperialist PKK, with overwhelming support among Turkey's 15 million Kurds, as well as growing support in northern Iraq, would be contrary to US interests in the region.

The Kurdish-populated region has an added strategic importance for the US since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has made the massive oilfields of the Caspian Sea republics available for capitalist exploitation. The route Washington favours for an oil pipeline — one that avoids Russia and Iran — travels through northern Iraq and Southern Turkey to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

Turkey has launched a new wave of repression in Kurdistan. On February 17, 10,000 Turkish troops, backed by helicopter gun ships and jet fighters, invaded northern Iraq. Inside Turkey and Turkish Kurdistan, more than 700 members of the legal Kurdish party, HADEP (People's Democracy Party), have been arrested in recent days.

The Turkish government has applied to the courts to have HADEP banned as a PKK front. HADEP sees this as an attempt to deprive Kurds of their few remaining democratic rights before the general elections due later this year.

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