Kurd refused sanctuary all over Europe

LIKE A hijacker seeking a safe port, the Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan was criss-crossing the airspace over Europe yesterday in an epic search for a place that he could at last call home.

Forced out of Syria, Russia and Italy in quick succession, Mr Ocalan had flown to Rotterdam in a private jet late on Sunday night, only to be denied landing rights by the Dutch authorities. The leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) then flew on, destination unknown.

The Turkish government, which wants to put Mr Ocalan on trial for his role in the death of 29,000 people during the Kurdish struggle for independence, said last night the aircraft was sitting on the apron of Athens airport, awaiting permission to enter from the Greek government. The Greeks denied the Turkish report, and said they did not want the Kurdish leader on their soil. No government was prepared to venture a guess as to where Mr Ocalan had begun his flight in the first place.

He was supposed to have left Italy on 16 January, after failing to secure political asylum. He was then rumoured to have returned to Russia, or settled in another eastern European country, or somewhere in the Middle East, or even South Africa.

All that could be said for certain was that late on Sunday night, Mr Ocalan was again on the move. Tipped off about his imminent arrival, about 200 Kurds had turned up at Rotterdam airport to cheer him. The Dutch authorities, however, found the landing documents wanting, and told him to go away.

According to Mr Ocalan's lawyer, the Kurdish leader had gone to the Netherlands to put Kurdistan's case personally to the international court in The Hague. But he was promptly declared persona non grata by the Dutch justice ministry.

There are not many countries that would want Mr Ocalan. Syria - haven and military base for the PKK for many years - showed him the door last autumn in the face of mounting Turkish pressure. He washed up in Russia, but was sent on his way again. On 12 November, he was arrested at Rome airport after a Russian tip-off.

That might have been the end of the road, except that even the countries that had put him on their most-wanted lists turned out not to want him after all.

Fearing riots among its large Kurdish and Turkish populations, Germany hurriedly withdrew its long-standing extradition order. Italy also decided it had no quarrel with the Kurds. That left only Turkey seeking Mr Ocalan, and Italy refused to hand him over to near-certain execution.

Because of Italy's controversial decision, Mr Ocalan is a free man, but homeless, and set to spark off another round of Greek-Turkish hostilities.

"We know he is at Athens airport," Korkmaz Hakmatir, under-secretary at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, was quoted as saying. "We insist he is not here," retorted a spokesman for the Greek government. Take your pick.