Psychopathic killer who is great hope of a nation

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The Independent Online
OFFERING ONE of his regular Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) ceasefires to the Turkish army, Abdullah Ocalan appeared at a damp, draughty press conference in a cement shack in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon six years ago. His theme: the brotherhood of the Turkish and Kurdish peoples. "We are so close, we are like the finger and the fingernail," he announced. And I couldn't help wondering how often the two had been separated in southern Turkey.

Ocalan is, even in many Kurdish eyes, a psychopathic killer - a Kurdish Abu Nidal who punished suspicion with death, whose guerrillas tamed their opponents not just with collaborator executions but with the slaughter of every member of the family of every collaborator. The Turkish security forces responded with murder, ethnic cleansing and wholesale invasion of the very northern Iraqi "safe haven" which we - the West - set up for the genocide-stricken Kurds.

Ocalan is no political innocent, no abider by human rights, no Robin Hood - though the socialist characteristic might suit the man with the bright, staring eyes. "Both Kurds and Turks are tired of bloodletting," he told us in 1993.

"Permit me to return unarmed to Kurdistan in peace to practice political action and start a dialogue between us." The Turks told him to get lost.

But the events of the past 24 hours embrace more than just international hypocrisy. There is a broader, far more important context to the capture of Abdullah Ocalan - a story of American intrigue, Kurdish betrayal and superpower support for the Muslim nation, Turkey, which has become Israel's newest ally in the Middle East.

Yesterday's seizure of the Kurds' most radical leader is likely to lead to much further violence: to the hijacking of Turkish aircraft, to attacks on Turkish embassies and diplomats - as the Turks are themselves well aware.

But it also raises questions about the policies of the United States towards Kurdistan's 20 million people, the largest nation in the world without a state. Only a month ago, the United States, whose CIA mission in northern Iraq was destroyed by President Saddam Hussein in 1996, was trying yet again to create an anti-Saddam alliance between the two more parochial Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

After their visit to Washington Barzani, whose movement collaborated with Saddam to destroy the PUK three years ago, and Talabani, whose support from Iran gave Barzani an excuse for seeking his overthrow, are now - more or less - on board the latest US campaign to overthrow the Beast of Baghdad.

With very good reason, Turkey was deeply troubled at this latest alliance. If Barzani and Talabani were ever to create an embryo Kurdish state in northern Iraq, the threat of a much larger Kurdish entity - including parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran as well as Iraq - would appear greater. The Turks were thus very suspicious of Washington's latest "peace-making".

If the western Allies had offered independence to the Arabs who overthrew their mutual enemies (the Ottoman Empire) in the First World War, why shouldn't Washington offer independence to the Kurds if they helped to topple Saddam?

How could Turkey show its anger? One way: to invite a senior Iraqi official to Ankara to discuss a withdrawal of Turkish landing rights for US and British fighter-bombers at the Incirlik and Batman airbases in southern Turkey - the very airfields from which Anglo-US aircraft are bombing northern Iraq. Tariq Aziz duly arrived in Ankara at the weekend as an honoured guest of the Turkish prime minister, Bulent Ecevit - only to be told, on Monday, that his request had been turned down. And then - momentum mirabilis - within hours of Turkey's rebuff to the Iraqis, Ocalan fell into their hands in Nairobi, where the CIA happens to have its Africa headquarters.

After its military-strategic alliance with Israel, Turkey has become one of America's best friends in the Middle East and an even more important strategic ally against Iraq. Ever since Ocalan was put aboard a flight out of Syria last year for Moscow, Rome and points east and south, Washington has demanded the PKK leader's extradition to Turkey.

The US administration knew that Turkey would demand capital punishment for its most infamous "terrorist" - so its advice was, in effect, a death sentence.

So what happens next? True, it's not a good time to fly on Turkish airlines or take a Turkish holiday or queue at a Turkish embassy visa office. Mr Ocalan's chums are about as choosy as a Cruise missile when it comes to the civilians they slaughter in the pursuit of their longer-term political aims.

But the Kurds, whose existence merits a state every bit as much as the Palestinians, are again a major issue in the Middle East.