U.S. intelligence, diplomats aided in capture of Ocalan

Beginning in October, pressure applied to keep Kurd leader on the run

February 20, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The United States worked for four months to help Turkey arrest Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader, U.S. officials said yesterday.

U.S. diplomatic pressure backed by intelligence gathering helped to put Ocalan in flight from a haven in Syria, to persuade nation after nation to refuse him sanctuary and to drive him into an increasingly desperate search for a city of refuge, the officials said.

"We as a government tried to figure out where he was, where he was going and how we might bring him to justice," a senior administration official said.

Like Turkey, the U.S. government, whose involvement in Ocalan's capture was reported yesterday by the Los Angeles Times, considers Ocalan a terrorist. He leads the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a violent campaign against Turkey for 15 years, seeking autonomy for the Kurdish people. About 37,000 people have died in that fight.

Ocalan's arrest on Monday led to angry protests by Kurdish demonstrators, who attacked Greek consulates and embassies across Europe and tried to storm the Israeli Consulate in Berlin on the strength of rumors that Greece and Israel had been involved in his capture. So far, the United States has not been a target of their anger.

Since October, Ocalan had been on the run -- from Syria to Italy to Russia to Greece. He finally landed in the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, on Feb. 2.

It was a poor choice of hide-outs. More than 100 U.S. intelligence officers and law-enforcement agents, along with Kenyan security officials, are in Nairobi investigating the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which took 213 lives in August.

Members of that team quickly discovered that Ocalan had arrived in Nairobi, U.S. officials said. They placed the Greek Embassy under surveillance and monitored Ocalan's cell phone conversations, while he placed calls to political contacts, seeking sanctuary.

The surveillance information gave Turkish commandos the chance to capture Ocalan with the help of Kenyan security officers, the officials said. The Turkish prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, said yesterday that a Turkish commando team flew to Nairobi after receiving a tip from another country, which he would not identify. The commandos captured Ocalan after he agreed to be driven to the Nairobi airport by a Kenyan security officer working with the Turkish squad.

It was the end of a long journey, one that U.S. diplomatic and intelligence officers monitored closely. From October onward, as Ocalan sought shelter in Russia, across Europe and in Africa, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers sought to cut off his escape routes, according to officials here.

Ocalan had spent much of the last 15 years in Damascus, Syria. In October, Turkey stepped up pressure on the Syrian government to expel him, threatening military action. The United States issued a parallel but private demand.

On Oct. 9, Syria put Ocalan on a plane to Moscow. On Nov. 2, after a month seeking a political base in Europe, Ocalan flew from Moscow to Rome and into the hands of the Italian authorities, who briefly held him on a German warrant before the charged was dropped.

On Jan. 30, he flew to Athens, Greece, in a private plane obtained by a retired military officer who sympathizes with the Kurdish cause.

Two days later, uneasy Greek officials told him to try the Netherlands, where he believed he could seek a hearing at the International Court of Justice. The Dutch authorities barred his plane, so Ocalan returned to Greece. The next day, he flew to Nairobi, where the Greek government had agreed to shelter him temporarily at its embassy.

After two tense weeks in the Greek Embassy, Ocalan was told he could fly to Amsterdam, Netherlands. He got into a jeep driven by a Kenyan security officer, supposedly bound for the airport.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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