Violent protests across Europe over PKK arrest

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The Independent Online
TWO KURDS set themselves on fire in Moscow yesterday and a Kurdish woman died in a suicide bombing in Turkey as a diplomatic storm caused by the arrest of a guerrilla leader deepened across Europe.

Abdullah Ocalan's arrest in Italy last week is the focus of a confrontation between Rome and Ankara that could swell into a highly charged dispute between Turkey and the European Union. It also sparked demonstrations by Kurdish exiles in a host of European cities, most dramatically in Moscow, where the two protesters soaked themselves in petrol and set themselves alight outside the parliament. An amateur video, broadcast on Russian television, showed the two men being engulfed by 15ft flames as motorists passed. The Kurds were admitted to hospital with serious burns.

In Brussels clashes broke out between Turkish immigrants and supporters of a militant Kurdish group as 200 Kurdish demonstrators marched to the Italian embassy. Two houses belonging to Kurds were set alight and windows were broken at a cafe frequented by Kurdish separatist supporters. There were no reports of serious injuries but two people were arrested and a police officer was treated for burns.

The crisis was provoked when Italy arrested Mr Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who has led a 14-year struggle for an autonomous state in the largely Kurdish south-east of Turkey, as he tried to enter the country on a flight from Moscow with a false passport.

He applied for asylum but the Turkish authorities demanded the return of a man they say is responsible for thousands of deaths - "a monster who has caused the loss of 30,000 people", in the words of the Turkish president, Suleyman Demirel.

Yesterday the Turkish Cabinet met to discuss a possible repeal of capital punishment, which would remove Italy's prime argument against agreeing to Mr Ocalan's extradition. Germany and Belgium, both home to large Kurdish populations, made it clear that if Italy expelled him, he was not welcome on their soil.

For the moment Rome is holding firm, provoking a surge of anti-Italian sentiment in Turkey. It is being fed by press criticism of the refusal of the Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, to extradite Mr Ocalan, and demands by businessmen for a boycott of Italian goods.

The repercussions are also spreading to sport. Last night Juventus, fearful of crowd disturbances and intimidation, demanded extra security for next week's crucial European Cup match in Istanbul against the local side, Galatasaray.

For Kurds, Mr Ocalan is a hero, whose detention, the Turkish security forces fear, could trigger a new spate of terrorist attacks. Yesterday's suicide bombing in the town of Yuksekova, in the mountains near where Turkey, Iran and Iraq meet, was the first of its kind since 1996, but it may signal the start of a renewed and sustained campaign.

Apart from the female terrorist, who died outside the local police station when she set off a bomb strapped to her body, six passers-by were wounded. It came less than 24 hours after police detained 91 hunger-strikers in a Kurdish party office in a nearby town. Eleven Turkish Kurds are reported to have burnt themselves to death in the region in a demonstration of support for Mr Ocalan.

This week the protests at his arrest spread across Europe, starting on Monday, when thousands of Kurds living in Romania went on strike. The attempted self-immolations in Moscow were but the most spectacular of a string of protests yesterday. In Bonn there was a march of 4,000 Kurdish residents, 50 of whom are now on hunger strike, while in Rome, thousands of Kurds from all over Europe have gathered to call for his release.

On the diplomatic front, the crisis threatens to poison relations further between Turkey and the EU. Greece leapt to Rome's support, saying the affair was not an Italian problem or an Italian-Turkish problem "but a European problem".