Turkiye is marking 23 years since Abdullah Ocalan, the ringleader of the PKK terror group, was caught in Kenya and brought home to face justice.
Shortly before the military coup of Sept. 12, 1980, Ocalan left Turkiye and settled in Syria.
Upon the instructions of Ocalan, the PKK, which later extended its area of influence to Iraq, launched acts of terrorism in eastern Turkiye’s Siirt and Hakkari provinces.
The PKK targeted Kurdish citizens living in Turkiye, especially in rural areas, and attempted to impede their rights through an armed campaign.
Turkiye was shocked by the PKK’s massacres in 1987 after Ocalan instructed his associates to kill those not voting for the Democracy Party, or DEP.
The terrorist ringleader was given the nickname “baby killer” as the PKK directly targeted innocent civilians.
The PKK’s bloody terror campaign continued in the 1980s.
Ocalan presided over the PKK’s armed and political activities from Syria until the fall of 1998. Then the Turkish government put pressure on Damascus not to harbor him within its territory.
The crisis between Turkiye and Syria further deepened as a result of the Hafez al-Assad administration’s support for the PKK and rhetoric towards Ankara.
The dispute transformed into another level following statements issued by countries’ officials and then Turkiye took the initiative to bring back the terrorist ringleader.
The whole process took another major turn in 1998, when Atilla Ates, the commander of the Turkish land forces, argued that Syria was not responding to Turkiye’s good intentions and the Turkish nation had enough of Syria’s policy towards the PKK and Ankara was running out of patience in this regard.
Then Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, for his part, said Syria was not giving up its hostile attitude despite Turkiye’s warnings and peaceful approach, and his country had the right to take essential steps.
As top Turkish officials implied that Ankara was fed up with the Syrian government, Assad deported Ocalan, who then moved to Greece and Russia respectively as the former rejected his asylum request.
Despite getting in contact with Moscow, Ankara failed to obtain the desired outcome. Although Ocalan was granted asylum by the Russian parliament, Moscow was unable to withstand the diplomatic pressure and sent him to Italy.
The Italian authorities initiated the asylum procedure for the terrorist ringleader, guaranteeing that he would not be extradited to Turkiye. However, it then arrested him for carrying a fake passport.
Turkiye also denounced the Italian authorities for not extraditing Ocalan on the pretext of capital punishment.
As Ocalan regretted his terrorist acts at an Italian court, he was given house arrest. The reaction from Turkiye grew stronger, however, and then transformed into a boycott campaign. Scores of Turkish citizens held demonstrations in front of the Italian embassy in Turkiye.
Ocalan was then sent back to Russia on Jan. 16, 1999, where he was given 10 days. Later, he flew to Greece on Jan. 29, 1999 in a private jet. Ocalan also sought to go to the Netherlands and Belarus on Jan. 31, but these countries did not grant permission to land.
On Feb. 2, 1999, he left Greece and was taken to the residence of the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
– Turkish intelligence takes action
After Turkiye’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) obtained information suggesting that Ocalan sought to move from Kenya to the Netherlands, it acted quickly, first renting a private jet belonging to a Turkish businessman.
The private jet was likened to the one Greece arranged for Ocalan and it left Turkiye with two pilots and MIT personnel onboard. The intelligence personnel were referred to as banana tradesmen.
The jet, which was rented due to its physical similarities to the plane traveling from the Netherlands to Kenya, was given the route of Egypt and Uganda. The plane waited in Uganda for 10 days.
– Terrorist captured
On Feb. 15, 1999, Turkish intelligence personnel took action to arrest Ocalan, who was carrying a Greek Cypriot passport with the fake name of “Lazaros Mavros.”
The Turkish jet landed at Nairobi Airport while the other private jet coming to transfer Ocalan to the Netherlands was still in the air.
Ocalan, who stayed at the Greek Embassy in Nairobi for a while, left the building with his bodyguards to leave the country for the Netherlands.
Kenyan police blocked the road connecting to the airport after Ocalan’s vehicle passed the checkpoint. However, the remaining vehicles of Ocalan’s convoy were directed to another road, and this helped the Turkish personnel gain time.
At Nairobi Airport, Ocalan entered the private jet which he thought was sent from the Netherlands for his transportation, but little did he know that the plane’s final destination was Turkiye.
Meanwhile, the convoy that brought Ocalan to the airport could not enter the area after the plane took off.
Ocalan was handcuffed and blindfolded after getting onboard, and the first thing he heard was: “Abdullah Ocalan, welcome to the homeland.”
His escape came to an end on Feb. 16, 1999, at 03.00 local time (GMT0000) as the plane landed in Turkiye.
Then Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit announced Ocalan’s arrest at a press conference early in the morning and said the whole operation was known by only a group of 10 people and he congratulated the personnel taking part.
– Judiciary process
Ocalan’s trial began in a special court established on the island of Imrali on May 31, 1999, and the case was completed in nine hearings.
He was given the death penalty for treason, but the sentence was then changed to aggravated life imprisonment in line with Turkiye’s ascension process to the European Union.
In its more than 35-year terror campaign against Turkiye, the PKK – listed as a terrorist organization by Turkiye, the US and the EU – has been responsible for the deaths of at least 40,000 people, including women, children and infants. The YPG is the PKK’s Syrian offshoot.
*Writing by Ali Murat Alhas
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