Italians hold on to Kurd leader

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The Independent Online
ITALY'S PRIME Minister, Massimo D'Alema, told Turkey yesterday that he would not bow to "economic blackmail" as tension heightened between the traditional allies over the demand for the handover of a Kurdish rebel leader.

Turkey is demanding the extradition of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), who is seeking political asylum in Italy. Turkish businesses are boycotting Italian products and a mob yesterday trampled Italian food for sale in a market.

Mr Ocalan was arrested on his arrival at Rome airport last Thursday. The Italian authorities face an unpalatable choice: to extradite the Kurdish leader to a country where the death penalty is in force and so violate the Italian constitution, or grant asylum to a man whom their Turkish Nato ally considers a terrorist.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Mesut Yilmaz, said on Wednesday that unless Mr Ocalan was extradited Italy would be "an accomplice to the crimes committed by the PKK".

Mr D'Alema responded that Italy had also been a victim of terrorism and such a claim was completely unjustified. He added that his government would not be intimidated and the question would be decided by the Italian courts.

Mr D'Alema insisted that the Kurdish issue was a European problem and that he expected solidarity from European Union members. But Brussels resisted calls to become involved.

However, Washington yesterday backed Turkey, its strategic ally. The US State Department spokesman James Rubin suggested that Rome might seek assurances from Ankara that if Mr Ocalan was sent back, he would not receive the death penalty.

The Italian government has also been hoping to use the presence of its difficult guest to launch efforts towards "peace talks" between the PKK and Turkey. Mr Ocalan has promised to renounce violence.