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Turkey warned to spare Ocalan or lose EU entry

A TURKISH appeals court yesterday upheld the death sentence against Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader, prompting the most explicit warning yet from the EU that Turkey's application for membership will be jeopardised if Ocalan is hanged.

"Hang the infidel!" shouted one demonstrator outside the appeals court yesterday, waving a picture of Ocalan with his mouth dripping with blood. Ocalan was sentenced to hang in June for leading a 15-year Kurdish rebellion. Turkish authorities blamed Ocalan for the deaths of all 30,000 people killed in the fighting.

Relatives of Turkish soldiers killed by the Kurdish rebels stormed a human rights office and beat a senior activist after the court's decision. Husnu Ondul, the head of the Human Rights Association, which is often accused of being sympathetic to Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), told reporters that around 40 people burst into his office in Ankara, ripping up telephone lines and destroying furniture.

Finland, which holds the EU presidency, demanded yesterday that Ocalan not be executed. "If the sentence is carried out, it would not fit in with the EU's policy on the death penalty," said the Finnish Foreign Minister, Tarja Halonen.

"This is a disappointment," said a spokesman for Gunter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement, who made the most explicit link so far between Ocalan's fate and Turkey's EU candidacy. "We would like to remind Turkey like other candidate countries that we expect them to withdraw the death penalty if they are to become member states." No EU member has the death penalty.

Turkey is confident of being named as an EU candidate at next month's Helsinki summit. But Ankara can "forget the Helsinki summit if Ocalan is executed," Germany's ambassador to Turkey, Joachim Vergau, was reported as saying this week.

Since June, when Turkey sentenced Ocalan to hang, the country has been swamped with European goodwill after two earthquakes killed more than 17,000 of its people. Differences with Greece have been patched up, and there are even signs of movement over Cyprus.

The Turkish parliament must now decide whether to execute the rebel leader. Hanging him will mean the end of Turkey's European aspirations - but sparing him will provoke outrage in a Turkish public baying for Ocalan's blood.

For the time being, though, Turkey has a breathing space - Ocalan's lawyers are appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, which will take at least 18 months to reach a decision.

The failure of Ocalan's appeal yesterday could spell furtherviolence by the Kurdish separatists. At Ocalan's bidding, the PKK has formally renounced violence and called on Turkey to make peace. But the Turkish authorities have dismissed the peace bid as a tactical bluff, and vowed to eradicate the rebels. They have made no concessions. The Kurds are still not recognised as a minority; their language is still banned.

PKK members have surrendered as a sign of goodwill - only to be jailed and prosecuted. Now there are rumours that some PKK splinter groups want to return to violence. An opportunity for peace may be slipping away.