Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 12

Moscow has denied a statement by the Turkish government alleging that Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan flew on January 16 from Rome to Russia. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit made the charge following a meeting in Ankara yesterday with the Russian ambassador, Aleksandr Lebedev. According to the Turkish leader, Ocalan had landed at an airport outside of Moscow. Ecevit called on Russia to deport Ocalan immediately if his information proved to be true, and suggested that he had received assurances to that effect from Lebedev (Itar-Tass, AP, January 18). Ocalan is wanted by the Turkish government on charges of terrorism. Ecevit’s suggestion yesterday that the Kurdish leader had flown to Moscow echoed reports that had appeared over the weekend following Ocalan’s secret departure from Italy.

However, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted a high Kremlin official yesterday as saying that Ocalan was definitely not in Russia. That statement coincided with a series of similar denials issued over the weekend by various Russian officials, including Lebedev and the Russian Aeroflot office in Rome. Lebedev said that Russian consulates had been specifically ordered to deny an entry visa to the Kurdish leader. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, meanwhile, told reporters in Moscow that the country’s secret services were investigating the reports that Ocalan might have traveled via Moscow to a third country–possibly South Africa or Libya. He said that they had not yet found any corroborating evidence (AP, January 18).

Ankara’s suspicions that Russia might be involved in Ocalan’s departure from Italy are understandable. The Kurdish leader is believed to have arrived in Italy on November 12 of last year on a flight from Moscow. That occurred after Russian officials had denied that Ocalan was in Russia.

Moscow, moreover, which sees Turkey as a rival in the Caucasus and the Balkans, has not been above showing its sympathies for Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Those sympathies were much in evidence on November 4 of last year, when the Russian State Duma overwhelmingly approved a motion requesting President Boris Yeltsin to grant Ocalan refuge status in Russia. According to a communist lawmaker, the Duma action came after Ocalan wrote to the Russian parliament thanking lawmakers for supporting his party’s cause and officially requesting asylum (Russian agencies, AP, November 4, 1998; see the Monitor, November 9, 1998).