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How the case of a Kurdish rebel divides NATO allies

Abdullah Ocalan - wanted by Turkey and arrested by Italy on a German warrant - now tests Europe's unity.

Waves of red Turkish flags poured through the streets of Berlin and three other German cities Saturday as thousands of angry demonstrators demanded the extradition of Abdullah Ocalan to Turkey.

The leader of a Kurdish guerrilla group in southeastern Turkey, Mr. Ocalan is being held under house arrest in Italy.

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The outpouring of emotion within Germany's large Turkish community, which generally views Ocalan as a terrorist, illustrates just how tangled the field of international law has grown.

Like the case of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet - who is now being held in Britain while Spain tries for his extradition - it also shows how much cross-border legal wrangling can affect international relations. Ocalan's case has brought the divisiveness of a far-off Middle Eastern conflict to the heart of Europe.

Acting on a German-issued international arrest warrant, Italian authorities detained Ocalan in Rome on Nov. 12. The leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was wanted for his alleged involvement in the 1984 murder of a PKK dissident in Germany.

Big challenge for Schrder

The newly elected German government of Chancellor Gerhard Schrder was faced with its first foreign-policy dilemma. While the federal prosecutor's office was preparing a second, expanded warrant for Ocalan's arrest, the government feared that trying him before a German court would cause civil unrest between the 500,000 ethnic Kurds and more than 1.5 million Turks living in Germany.

The PKK, outlawed in Germany, is considered one of the best-organized extremist organizations here, with 11,000 members.

"I have asked my colleague to understand that Germany will not make an extradition request for the time being," Mr. Schrder said after consulting with Italian Premier Massimo D'Alema in Bonn on Friday. Instead, Schrder proposed bringing Ocalan before an ad hoc court and launching a European initiative to address the grievances of Kurds in Turkey.

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To Mr. D'Alema, the German government's decision has hardly solved the problem of what to do with Ocalan. The Turkish government, which regards the Kurdish leader as a terrorist responsible for 30,000 deaths in a 14-year-old civil war, has been demanding Ocalan's extradition to Ankara in increasingly harsh tones. Rome refuses to turn him over; Italian law prohibits extradition to countries with the death sentence.

Threatening Italy with "eternal enmity" and canceling $300 million in Italian arms contracts, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz intends to abolish the death penalty to force Ocalan's extradition. Despite a domestic political crisis at home, Mr. Yilmaz can count on broad support in his standoff with Italy.

Unless the German government changes course and requests Ocalan's extradition, the Italian authorities legally must set Ocalan free after Dec. 22.

Turkey nearly went to war with Syria in October after accusing Damascus of running PKK training camps and granting Ocalan a haven. Since then, the Kurdish leader has been on the run, first appearing in Moscow, then flying on to Rome in hopes of receiving political asylum there.

US bid to soothe NATO allies

The United States has been quietly seeking to maintain the peace between Turkey, Italy, and Germany, all NATO members. For more than 30 years, Turkey has been striving to join the European Union (EU), only to have its application thwarted primarily by objections to human rights violations against Kurds. Yilmaz has repeatedly expressed his bitterness - especially about Germany's past opposition to Turkish membership.

Ocalan's arrest has only chilled relations more, with the EU threatening sanctions against Turkey should it broaden its embargo against Italy.

In its isolation from Europe, Ankara has welcomed support from Washington, which sees in Turkey a staunch Middle East ally. While the State Department at first urged Italy to extradite Ocalan to Turkey, the Clinton administration now simply calls for the Kurdish leader to be brought to justice.

Schrder's proposal that Ocalan be tried before an ad hoc European court appears to be a step in this direction, though legal experts question which judicial body would be competent to try the case, with a world court as envisioned by the United Nations still years away.

"This is a legal scandal," said Turkish Justice Minister Hasan Denizkurdu after Schrder announced the proposal. Turkey "will never allow the issue to be taken to an international arena."

Kurds welcome the attention

For Kurds, however, the plan to pursue a European initiative to solve the Kurdish problem is a windfall.

"It's an ideal situation and also good for Turkey and the Near East," says Hassan Mohammed-Ali, head of the Kurdish Community in Berlin.

Mr. Mohammed-Ali rules out the possibility that Italy will eventually back down to Turkish pressure, comparing Ocalan to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who in all the years as a wanted terrorist was never extradited to Israel on trips abroad.

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