Kurdish militant leader wields influence from island prison

Mon Nov 26, 2012 5:30am EST
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By Nick Tattersall

ANKARA (Reuters) - Snatched by Turkish commandos in Nairobi, Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan looked resigned and bewildered as he was flown back to Ankara, the gallows beckoning. A decade later, on his island prison, he appears to have the ear of a Turkish government eager to end a devastating conflict.

It seems an unlikely comeback. Reviled in most of Turkey but commanding fierce loyalty from Kurdish nationalists, Ocalan has been held in virtual isolation on the barren island of Imrali, 50 km (30 miles) south of Istanbul, since his capture in 1999.

Even his lawyers haven't seen him for 15 months.

But after the bloodiest summer for years in Turkey's conflict with Kurdish militants, and with fears over the spread of Kurdish insurrection in neighboring Syria, Ocalan is emerging from the virtual oblivion of Imrali.

When hundreds of Kurdish militants on hunger strike in jails across Turkey drew close to death this month, Turkish authorities turned to the man reviled by newspapers after his capture as "Butcher" and "Baby Killer".

A message through his brother to call off the strike was immediately obeyed, an apparent sign of the authority generally supposed to have drifted from the man, known by allies as "Apo", over his years on Imrali.

"He proved that he is still the boss, that he has the last word," said Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, who met Ocalan twice in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s.

"He is not a fighter or a guerrilla war expert, he is more the thinking man trying to shape the Kurdish problem. He wants to be the leader of all Kurds, that is the image he gives."   Continued...

File photo of demonstrators taking part in a protest in favor of jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in Strasbourg February 12, 2011. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler