Italy condemns `blackmail' by Turkey over Kurd rebel 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 and Turkey has demanded his extradition. 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 not an Italian problem and that he expected solidarity from European Union members. But Brussels resisted calls to become involved. "There has been no move that I am aware of to involve the European Union in this case," a source from the Austrian EU presidency said.

However, in its first official comment since the crisis, Washington backed its strategic ally Turkey. United States State Department spokesman James Rubin suggested that Rome might seek assurances from Ankara that if he was sent back, Mr Ocalan would not receive the death penalty.

The Italian government, has been hoping to use the presence of its difficult guest to launch start efforts towards "peace talks" between the PKK and Turkey. In a newspaper interview from the hospital outside Rome where he is being held, Mr Ocalan promised to renounce violence and urged Italy to intervene diplomatically in the Kurds' struggle for a homeland.