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U.S. soft-pedals its role in capture of rebel Kurd; Turkey received information and diplomatic support


WASHINGTON -- The United States, almost alone among major Western countries in backing Turkey's drive to capture Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, may have helped the Turks nab him.

An American official said the United States provided valuable information that helped the Turks track down their prey, who was captured Monday in Kenya and taken to Turkey.

The arrest gave the Turkish government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit a major political victory and marked a milestone in Ankara's 14-year war against the armed Turkish Workers' Party, or PKK, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The Clinton administration issued carefully worded denials of any direct involvement in Ocalan's arrest.

"The United States did not apprehend or transfer Ocalan or transport him to Turkey," State Department spokesman James Foley said.

"We have had extensive diplomatic efforts that we have undertaken to bring him to justice," he acknowledged.

"We have been in frequent diplomatic contact with all governments concerned. I can't get into the nature of our diplomatic exchanges, but ... this has been the case ever since he turned up in Italy some months ago," he said.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said, "We're obviously very pleased with the apprehension of this terrorist leader," adding that the United States had "no direct involvement" in Ocalan's capture.

Officials acknowledged that the statements offered ample room for indirect assistance having occurred. One said the United States provided valuable information to Turkey.

No official provided specifics of how the United States helped Turkey. Accounts from Kenya, where Ocalan apparently had been hiding in a Greek Embassy compound since early February, left the circumstances of his capture a mystery.

Israel, a U.S. ally that has formed an increasingly close military relationship with Turkey, denied involvement.

Courting Turkey, Kurds

The Kurds, a stateless minority in Turkey, northern Iraq, Iran and Syria, have won considerable sympathy around the world, particularly in Europe, in their demand for an independent homeland.

The American role in Kurdish affairs and in Turkey's conflict with the PKK is one of the most complicated aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

The United States is deeply indebted to Turkey for letting American planes use military bases there to contain Iraq. Washington has voiced no objections to Turkey's occasional raids on PKK strongholds in northern Iraq.

At the same time, the United States is trying to enlist two Kurdish factions in Iraq in its effort to topple President Saddam Hussein.

"Certainly there's a full convergence of U.S. and Turkish interests in this," said Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who follows Turkish affairs closely.

U.S. battles terrorism

Far more than its European allies, the United States has made the war against terrorism a central part of its national security policy. The city in which Ocalan was captured is the site of the bombing of a U.S. Embassy in August, one of the worst terrorist attacks against Americans in years.

U.S. political support for Turkey in its drive to capture Ocalan "has been crucial to Turkey in legitimizing its policies toward the PKK at a time when the European position ranged from negative to silent," Makovsky said.

Intimidation of Syria

Earlier, terrorism specialists in Washington welcomed the Turks' successful pressuring of Syria to expel Ocalan, who is accused of having directed terrorist actions from there for years. Ocalan left Syria in October.

"The Turkish general staff basically said, 'You either expel him or we're coming in,' and massed troops on the border," said Kenneth Katzman, an expert on Middle East terrorism at the Congressional Research Service. Syrian President Hafez el Assad "completely caved in."

"A lot of people were quietly cheering the Turkish general staff as the group that finally gave Assad his comeuppance," Katzman said.

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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