When Öcalan Found Refuge Nowhere

By Lazghine Ya’qoube

On the 24th anniversary of Abdullah Öcalan’s kidnapping by Turkey (February 15, 1999)—a day known to his supporters in Kurdish as “Roja Reş” (Dark Day)—the following is a chronological outline of the months and events that led up to that fateful moment. Understanding the international conspiracy against him—and for all intents and purposes the Kurdish people’s freedom movement—is helpful for anyone interested in the ongoing geopolitical environment surrounding Kurdistan and the states seeking to control it.

It begins in the late 1990’s with Turkish Land Forces having already been deployed along the border of Syria and on the prowl to set out the zero hour for an imminent assault. A high-profile conference was held in Ankara to discuss the latest in the developing saga and to decide on which kind of action was suitable if the Syrian state did not meet Turkey’s demands. Later in the evening, news emerged from Damascus confirming rumors circulating in Ankara. An invasion would be averted, because Abdullah Öcalan, leader of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was no longer on Syrian soil.

Throughout the 1990’s, Turkish officials had repeatedly attributed the deteriorated relations with Syria to the latter’s “harboring” of the PKK leader, who had resided in Syria (and at times Rojava) from 1979-1998. Yet, Syrian President Hafez Assad still sheltered Öcalan. However, the story developed substantially in 1997, when on October 8th the United States State Department listed the PKK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), giving Ankara the impetus to pursue Öcalan. Turkish authorities now had their best justification to invade Syria.

Following Egyptian mediation between the parties, begrudgingly, a prompt and yet momentous decision was made. President Hosni Mubarak told Assad that Ankara’s threats against Syria were serious. And that to defuse tension, Assad had to submit to Turkish military pressure.

October – December 1998

On October 9, 1998—a year and a day to the US FTO enlisting—Öcalan left for Athens, embarking on a 129-day long odyssey by air that was to end dramatically and unexpectedly in Africa. Ten days prior on October 7, Öcalan had asked Russian authorities to be allowed safe passage to Moscow, but the situation escalated so quickly in Syria that he could not await Russia’s reply.

For their part, Washington had its own reasons to give free rein to Ankara to tighten the screws on Damascus. With a possible invasion of Iraq already in the works, the US—following the Washington Kurdish Agreement of September 1998 between Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—was eager to assuage Ankara’s fears of Kurdish self-determination elsewhere.

On November 6, 1998, US Secretary of Defense William Cohen visited Ankara and raised the possibility of invading Iraq to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, allegedly for harboring weapons of mass destruction. Relatedly, the US Air Force Base of Incirlik near Adana in Turkey was strategic and a crucial asset for any invasion of Iraq. Not only airbases were sought by the US military for the Iraq invasion, but airports and ports in Istanbul and on the Black Sea. It seemed likely that Uncle Sam’s assistance for the capture of Öcalan wound be a part of this quid pro quo.

Syria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Farouq al-Sharaa says it was one of the toughest life decisions ever made by President Hafez Assad to deport Öcalan, who he admired and saw as a freedom fighter. Unfortunately, for Öcalan (and the millions of Kurds who follow his leadership), it was a life-altering decision.

On board the first Syrian plane was Savas Kalenteridis an officer in the Greek Intelligence Services (EYP), who would escort the Kurdish leader into Greece. However, the Greek government then had a change of heart and informed Öcalan that he could not enter the country. Instead, they suggested that he fly to Sweden, where Greece would help him get political asylum. Öcalan shunned their proposal, and a few hours later he received a Russian invitation. After quickly obtaining a visa, Öcalan departed for Moscow aboard a private aircraft.

As Turkey was meticulously awaiting word on his location, the pro-government daily paper Hurriyet reported on October 14 that Israeli Intelligence Services (Mossad) had “important evidence” Öcalan was now in Russia. A week later on October 22, Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz called on Russia to hand over Öcalan. Yet, Moscow denied any knowledge of his presence on their soil (even though Öcalan was in Odintsovo near Moscow).

On November 4, the Duma unanimously accepted Öcalan’s application for political asylum, but Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov—who had been recently appointed to the post in September—did not put the motion into action. Instead, because of Ankara’s mounting pressure, Öcalan was repeatedly told to leave Russia. Being pressed, he requested political asylum from Belarus, but the request was rejected.

Forced to leave Russia after 33 days, the Russians offered Öcalan safe passage to one of four states: Greece, Libya, Armenia, or Cyprus. Instead, he phoned Ramon Mantovani, a high-profile member of Italy’s Communist Refoundation Party (PRC). Öcalan wanted a guarantee from the Italian government that he could stay in the country. However, because of the tightening circle around him, Öcalan accompanied Mantovani to Rome on November 12, without obtaining the guarantee he had sought.

Once in Rome, with an international warrant issued by the German government for his arrest, Öcalan surrendered to Italian police. He was also subject to a Turkish arrest warrant from 18 years prior, dated September 24, 1981. However, the newly installed government of Massimo D’Alema (an ex-communist), which assumed power less than a month prior, was presented with a difficult political dilemma. What could they do with a man deemed a “terrorist” by Turkey, but considered a patriot and hero for millions of others around the world (including leftist Italians)?

On November 17, D’Alema stated Italy was willing to mediate between Turkey and the Kurds. However, on the following day, the US publicly asked Italy to extradite Öcalan, should guarantees for his safety be obtained. Three days later, the Italian Court of Appeal declared Turkey’s arrest warrant ineffective on Italian territory and instead confined Öcalan to house arrest.

It was at this point when Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit asked his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to help capture the Kurdish leader. The Mossad had a colossal part in helping the Turkish Intelligence Services (MIT) stay on Öcalan’s trail. But why? As it turned out, Turkey’s relentless pursuit of Öcalan was immensely helped by its recently signed military alliance with Israel. And throughout the 1990’s, Turkey and Israel signed over twenty military- related agreements. In 1996 alone, three agreements were signed including a Defense Alliance.

The recently growing cooperation between Israel and Turkey then culminated in the one-day Mediterranean “Operation Reliant Mermaid” on January 7, 1998, being the first ever joint military exercise between the Israeli and Turkish navies and the US Sixth Fleet. Jordan was invited as an observer, while Syria condemned the exercise as provocative and dangerous. Meanwhile back in Italy, unknown to Öcalan, Mossad agents were deployed to Rome and set up surveillance near his residence. But they were unlucky, as Öcalan was well protected by the Italian police.

On November 21, Holly Cartner, the Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, wrote to D’Alema that Öcalan should not receive asylum in Italy since he could not receive asylum under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, they also agreed that Öcalan should not be sent back to Ankara, “Given the widespread use of torture in Turkey.”

November 27 was decisive; the Italian government found itself in a perplexing situation following a meeting between D’Alema and the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. The German government then formally dropped the extradition bill against Öcalan, as the Italian Penal Code considers extradition a crime. To know how strenuous the situation in Rome was, Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini paid a two-day visit to Moscow late in November, where he proposed Öcalan be sent back to Moscow based on the ‘Border Improvement and Immigration Act of 1998’, stating that foreigners who arrive at the border without the required prerequisites are sent back to the country from which they came. Moscow, however, turned down the option of taking Öcalan back, because it would adversely affect its relations with Turkey.

When the German Government supported Öcalan be tried under an international court or in a third country under the 1972 Strasbourg Convention, Italy’s Minister of the Interior, Roza Russo, admitted the government did not know how to implement it, as Italy was not yet a signatory to the convention. However, Italy was now re-considering their position, as a solution out of their dilemma. On December 7, EU foreign ministers supported Italy in refusing to extradite Öcalan to Turkey. Two days later, Dini put to the parliament that Öcalan be tried on Italian soil, a proposal that was introduced by a group of legal experts.

For the Italians, division within the government reduced Öcalan’s affair to a legal one. While Diliberto was supportive and D’Alema undecided, Dini was against granting Öcalan asylum on the basis that it would damage Italy’s interests. The Italians were fearful of Turkish economic reprisals which were already taking place. Since Italy had been the first Western Power to sign a pact with the Turks after the First World War, Rome’s economic privileges were enshrined in the ‘Treaty of Friendship, Conciliation and Neutrality’ from May 30, 1928.

However, while the trade arena was on a solid ground, history of Italo-Turkish political relations was a checkered one and the Turks had always perceived Italians as troublemakers. Furthermore, Ankara accused Rome of sheltering terrorists and murderers, which was only exacerbated by Öcalan’s presence in Italy, which began to strain diplomatic relations with Turkey. Rome’s economic relations with Ankara were now under full assault. As Turkey’s Defense Minister Ismet Sezgin threatened to bar Italian companies from defense contracts. Maintaining commercial relations became the driving force in removing Öcalan.

The list of Italian investments and companies in Turkey was too extensive to even list. Yielding to pressure, Rome offloaded its legal ethics for the sake of not sacrificing one of its major trading partners. On December 23, out of external pressure, and to avert a government collapse, D’Alema declared that the best solution would be for Öcalan to leave Italy voluntarily. The Italian government requested Öcalan to leave the country to a secret destination based on purely political reasons and economic considerations. But the circumstances under which Öcalan left Rome still remain unclear.

January – February 1999

From January 16, 1999, up to early February the whereabouts of Öcalan remained unknown. The Turks were of the belief that the Kurdish leader was on Russian soil, and actually he briefly was. Following a surreptitious stay in Moscow, Öcalan was taken to a military base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, being covertly harbored there while the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was visiting Moscow. Öcalan’s affair was one of the topics on the table of the two-day visit from January 23-25.

The story takes another twist when Öcalan is taken to St. Petersburg, being advised to remain in his plane for allegedly being a target for kidnapping or assassination by hired mafia. Originally, Öcalan went to Russia planning to return to Europe and go to the Netherlands to appeal to the International Court of Justice. However, things went awry. On January 29, and following a Russian assertion of a murder plot, Antonis Naxakis—a retired Greek naval officer—arranged a private Lear jet flight for his long-time friend Öcalan to Athens. They told airport VIP services the plane was carrying a Russian undersecretary. However, EYP later realized it was Öcalan. Naxakis asked to meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs Theodoros Pangalos, but it was EYP head, Major Haralambos Stavrakakis, who arrived and told Öcalan he could not stay in Greece.

Following long deliberations, Öcalan and his companions flew the next day to Minsk, Belarus, on a Greek plane. Another plane was supposed to pick them up from the airport and fly them to The Hague, in the Netherlands. However, there was no such plane in Minsk. Furthermore, the crew of the Greek plane wanted to dump the passengers in Minsk and return home. Upon refusing to get out the plane, Öcalan returned back and landed in Athens at dawn on January 31 and without delay took a flight to the remote Greek island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea.

On February 1, based on orders given by Prime Minister Costas Simitis, Öcalan was put back on the private plane for Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. And had the flight been able to land, the entire fate of the Kurdish leader would have been a different one. But it was not, as the Dutch turned his plane away, and it returned back to Corfu.

Rotterdam was the last attempt in a long fruitless shuttle of flights arriving at and departing from different European airports. At this time, Greece felt the burden of the guest it was hosting. An offer based on assurances from Pangalos to take Öcalan temporarily to a Hellenic embassy until Athens could negotiate political asylum with the Netherlands or an African state was proposed.

Once more, preparations for a new and yet more markedly remote flight began in Corfu. Then, on the way to the plane, its wing suddenly impaled through the front window of the military vehicle, nearly killing Öcalan who was sitting in the front seat. Other ‘confidants’ incurred wounds to their hands and face, while Öcalan barely managed to get out of the car. So that being the case, they were forced to wait for another plane.

On February 2, a French-built Dassault Falcon jet landed at Nairobi, Kenya, secretly carrying Öcalan. Greek Ambassador Georgios Costoulas used his diplomatic privilege to escort passengers through the airport, bypassing immigration controls which arouse suspicion. Vassilis Papaioanou, a senior aide to Pangalos, had in advance notified the secretary of the embassy that the Falcon would arrive with important passengers. But Kenya would tragically prove to be the wrong choice.

In the aftermath of the terror attacks mounted against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, which claimed 224 lives including 12 Americans, over 900 agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) traveled overseas to track down the perpetrators. Consequently, Kenya was riddled with intelligence services at the time from all around the world. Interestingly, why the Greek EYP chose Nairobi was never disclosed. But it is known that Israel had good relations with Kenya, including intelligence sharing.

On February 3, Kalenteridis revealed the arrangement of his government that he would travel to South Africa to make preparations for a safe passage and most importantly to get a passport for Öcalan, who was to wait in Nairobi. On February 4, an officer at the US embassy asked to make arrangements for a meeting with Costoulas. On the same day, Costoulas was summoned to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry and asked about the previous passengers on the Falcon. At the airport, Kalenteridis was detained and later returned to the embassy.

Elsewhere in Ankara, on the same day a unit of Maroon Berets was assigned with a top secret beyond border mission outside of Turkey. Having a Falcon 900B triple-engine jet painted with a Malaysian flag over the Turkish badge on its fuselage, the Turkish team flew first to Kampala, Uganda. Reportedly, it was the US that tipped the Turks off that the PKK’s leader was now in Kenya.

On February 5, clear instructions came from Athens to remove Öcalan from the Greek Embassy. Öcalan, rejected their request, and asked to either go to the UN office to ask for asylum or to a rural farm where he could evade surveillance. He then submitted a written request for political asylum. The same day, Israeli Mossad arrived in Nairobi and set up eavesdropping equipment to monitor communications. By February 12, it was no longer a secret that Öcalan was in Kenya. On that day, Stavrakakis asked Kalenteridis to evict Öcalan from the official residence.

The next day (February 13) Stavrakakis pleaded with Kalenteridis to remove Öcalan from the embassy—and by force if necessary—but Kalenteridis smelled a trap and disobeyed his superior. At this time, Athens dispatched a four-member EYP team which arrived in Nairobi nearly at mid-day time on Sunday February 14 (St. Valentine’s Day). Codenamed “Football Team”, the security unit took orders to immediately remove Öcalan from the embassy to a nearby hotel room, give him a little bit of money if necessary, and abandon him at that point. It was asserted that everything should be finished the next day.

The Dark Day

On Monday, (February 15) on the 129th day since Öcalan was forced out of Syria, Costoulas was summoned to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry and presented with photographic evidence from Foreign Affairs Minister, Bonaya Godana, that the Kenyans knew Öcalan was at the diplomatic compound. As a result, Godana then offered an aircraft to transfer Öcalan to a country of his choosing. Ambassador Costoulas was told by the Kenyans that if Öcalan did not leave “something might happen in the night”. Murder was not ruled out and Greece, to save face, agreed. Meanwhile, in Kampala, at about 16:00, the Turkish team—five commandos, a doctor, and a pilot—left for Nairobi.

Inside the Greek diplomatic mission and believing Greek officials had guaranteed his safe passage to Europe, Öcalan agreed to leave before Godana’s two-hour window expired at 19:00. The Greek Ambassador was assured that Öcalan would be able to travel in his own car to the airport to enjoy diplomatic immunity and three Greek vehicles were to leave for the airport. However, when the Kenyan authorities arrived in five cars, they insisted Öcalan travel in one of theirs. At this point, Costoulas asked to travel with Öcalan? The answer was no. Before Öcalan could enter the car, Costoulas received a call from Pangalos saying Öcalan could go to Europe. It was perceived as a breakthrough. Although suspicious, Öcalan had no other options than to accept the offer and the ride.

Öcalan then boarded a seemingly “Kenyan” jeep to head towards the airport, thinking he would soon be boarding a flight for Amsterdam. His Greek friends and Kurdish aides got aboard a separate “Greek” vehicle. The identities of people onboard the “Kenyan” cars have never been revealed. On the highway to the airport, the Kenyan car suddenly drove away and disappeared. When the Greek car arrived at the airport there was no trace of Öcalan. As he had been driven right onto the tarmac and bundled into a waiting plane, most likely Turkey’s Falcon 900B.

In Ankara, Ecevit brought to a premature end a meeting with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to attend to a more significant affair which was in its final phase. The mission was so top secret in fact, that when the plane tried to land at Istanbul airport it was initially refused permission, since it had no flight plan.

However, in the early hours of February 16, Ecevit shocked the whole world—particularly millions of Kurds—by saying Öcalan was now in Turkey. The sudden and dramatic arrest of Öcalan confounded and enraged many Kurds. Later, Greek Intel officer Kalenteridis would reveal: “The whole thing was plotted by America, Turkey, Kenya, and Greece. We were the middlemen.” Now, whether Nairobi was meant to be a transit point to somewhere else or originally a trap hatched for the Kurdish leader has never been verified. Yet, the sequel to the affair lends credence to the words of Kalenteridis.

Critically, Öcalan, a man representing the desire of millions of Kurds, was abandoned, and had the doors of world democracies slammed in his face. The case had become a hot potato that none wanted to touch. And rather than siding with an oppressed and criminalized population of Kurds represented by their leader, those states choose money and their geopolitical interests over the treaties they pretend are sacrosanct. In the aftermath, 24 years later on another Roja Reş, Öcalan still languishes in isolation on Imrali Island Prison, under a life-sentence. Yet, it needs to be noted that without the freedom of Ocalan from this unjust imprisonment the Kurdish-Turkish issue will not be resolved. The freedom of Ocalan remains a non-negotiable aspect of the justice and reconciliation that the Kurds seek for decades of their basic human, cultural and linguistic rights being denied and erased by the Turkish state.


  • Lazghine Ya’qoube

    Lazghine Ya’qoube is a Rojava-based translator, author, and researcher on the modern history of Mesopotamia with a special focus on Kurdish, Yazidi and Assyrian affairs around World War I. He has written extensively on topics related to the current Syrian Crises.

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