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World - Europe

Profile: Ocalan inspires loyalty, hate


In this story:

Shadowy exile since '80

Founded PKK in '74


February 16, 1999
Web posted at: 5:42 a.m. EST (1042 GMT)

ANKARA, Turkey (Reuters) - Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose capture and return to Turkey was reported on Tuesday, inspires a fierce loyalty among Kurdish nationalists matched only by the hatred in which he is held in most of Turkey.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, his voice quaking with emotion, told a news conference Ocalan had been brought to Turkey, where he faces the death penalty for crimes against the state in the 14-year-old separatist campaign he started and ran.

Earlier, Kurdish protesters from Moscow to London had invaded Greek missions, believing Athens responsible for allowing the portly guerrilla leader to be lured out of sanctuary at the Greek Embassy in Nairobi.

Sensing their leader was in trouble, Ocalan's supporters in the Kurdish diaspora mobilised across Europe to demand news of the architect of Kurdish nationalism whom they revere as a hero.

"The Greek and Kenyan governments are playing with the fate of a nation and a people...They must tell us where our leader is, what they have done with him," Semsi Kilic, spokesman for Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), told the Kurdish MED TV channel.

Shadowy exile since '80

More than 37,000 people have died in the separatist campaign Ocalan has directed in Turkey's southeast for 15 years.

Ankara holds him personally responsible for all those deaths and his capture represents a massive victory for Turkey, where he is reviled by the popular press and across the mainstream political spectrum as a mass-murderer and a "baby killer."

The guerrilla, whose whereabouts have been unclear since he left Italy in January, has lived in shadowy exile since 1980, setting up a network of militant sympathizers in Western Europe.

Several set themselves on fire to protest his detention in Italy before a Rome court said he could go free late last year.

Since then, Ocalan had been on the run, his whereabouts the subject of speculation as European countries rebuffed his bids for refuge. Turkey vowed to chase him to the ends of the earth.

"Wherever he goes in the world, we will pursue him...Those who befriend him are the partners of a baby-killer," Turkish President Suleyman Demirel said.

Ocalan, heavily built with a thick mustache, retains a Cold War brand of nationalism mixed with Marxist-Leninism that belongs to another era.

"You must believe before everything else that the revolution must come, that there is no other choice," Ocalan said in a televised address to Kurdish youth in August last year.

"Even though I am 50 years old I have never allowed myself to get old. I am going on with the struggle," said Ocalan, whose nom de guerre is "Apo."

He was driven from Syrian exile in October after Ankara threatened Damascus with force if it did not wind up bases it said the PKK were using to launch raids in Turkey's southeast. From there he fled to Moscow before appearing in Rome.

Founded PKK in '74

Ocalan, born to a poor peasant family in the southeastern village of Omerli, forged his political ideas in the violent atmosphere of Turkish politics in the 1970s.

Around 5,000 people were killed in street fighting between left and right that ended when the army staged a coup in 1980.

Ocalan, a drop-out from Ankara University's political science faculty, fled abroad after the putsch.

He founded the PKK in 1974 as an extreme-left nationalist faction that later earned a reputation for ruthlessness by killing members of rival groups, Kurdish "aga" landlords and pro-government tribesmen.

He launched his war against the Turkish state for the establishment of an independent state of Kurdistan along Marxist lines.

The PKK announced "liberated zones" and Turkish forces rarely travelled through the region at night for fear of ambush.

But a tough military scorched-earth campaign against the rebels and their civilian supporters has since pared back the group's numbers and badly weakened its ability to strike.

"War is war and this war is the dirtiest and cruellest in the world," Ocalan told MED TV last month.

He gradually dropped demands for independence and said he could end the conflict if Turkey granted Kurdish autonomy or cultural and linguistic rights. Ankara never trusted "Apo" and was in any case opposed to ethnic autonomy in principle.

Kurdish leader back in Turkey; arrest sparks protests across Europe
February 16, 1999
Turkey calls on Greece to reject Kurdish leader
February 1, 1999

Kurdistan Workers Party Information
The Republic of Turkey
President of the Turkish Republic
The Center for Kurdish Political Studies
Terrorist acts by the PKK
Turkish Press Review: Daily News
Kurdish Information Network
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