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Role of Athens in Kurd arrest may hit Greco-Europe ties

Controversy over rebel leader Ocalan's capture leads to departure oftop officials.

This has been one of most complicated weeks for Greece in a long time - one that unravels part of the complex relationship the country has maintained with Kurdish separatists waging a struggle for autonomy against Greece's perennial foe next door: Turkey.

Yesterday, three key Greek ministers were forced to resign amid an outcry over the country's problematic sympathy with the Kurds, which led the government to harbor Kurd rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan while blatantly abusing the human rights of Kurds seeking refuge here.

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The story spans at least the past six months, during which Greek authorities left untouched a Kurdish tent city in Athens. The 1,000 or so homeless Kurds who were camped out in Koumoundourou Square made Athens the only major European capital with a refugee camp blossoming inside its city limits.

But on Monday at dawn, riot police swept in and rounded up the Kurds without warning, packing them onto guarded buses. After a plan to put them in an old hospital didn't work out, police instead took them to a former military barracks in a remote area of the wintry mountains. They were left there without supplies, heating, or electricity.

This baffling episode, condemned by human rights organizations, began to make more sense by Tuesday. Then, news broke of the handover to Turkey of Mr. Ocalan. He was flown to Turkey after being apprehended in Nairobi, Kenya, where he had been given refuge at the Greek ambassador's residence for almost two weeks.

Violent demonstrations against Greek embassies erupted across Europe, as Kurds suspected that Greece had betrayed Ocalan and the Kurdish cause.

Foreseeing riots in downtown Athens like those that have materialized against their embassies throughout Europe, Greek officials apparently decided to flush their own Kurdish refugees out of the capital first.

"It's pretty clear they were evacuated because the government feared demonstrations by the Kurds," says Thanos Veremis, the president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

Concerned about Greece's image abroad, the government of Prime Minister Costas Simitis has been deeply shaken by the scandal that puts Greece in a no-win situation. Already, Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, Interior Minister Alekos Papadopoulos, and Public Order Minister Philipos Petsalnikos have resigned.

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If the government admits it was sheltering Ocalan, it risks being branded by the West as a country that harbors terrorists: The conflict involving Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, is responsible for many as 30,000 deaths, and the PKK is on the US State Department's list of terror groups.

If it becomes clear that Greece willingly turned Ocalan over, it will be seen domestically as an act of betrayal and ineptitude that also delivers a great coup for Turkey at Greece's expense.

Popular Greek empathy with Kurdish separatists has not necessarily translated into open arms for Kurds seeking asylum here.

Mohammed Abu Ali is one of the few who has made it in the door. A Kurdish lawyer from Baghdad, he escaped from Iraq in 1996 and came here via Turkey. He dislikes the link the government has made between Iraqi Kurds like him - who make up most of the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Kurdish refugees in Greece, and are generally not PKK supporters - and the Turkish Kurds.

"In their minds it's all become mixed together - us and Ocalan," says Mr. Abu Ali, a leader among the Iraqi Kurds here. "It's a matter of the enemy of my enemy is my friend," he says of Greece's traditional support for the Kurds. "But the government hasn't helped the refugees at all."

Ocalan's capture and the subsequent protests may move the plight of the Kurds - at more than 20 million, one of the world's largest ethnic groups never to have its own state - to the top of the international agenda. After Kurdish protesters forced their way into the Geneva headquarters of the UNHCR on Wednesday, the organization said it would call for a United Nations commission to examine the Kurdish issue.

But violence has continued to mar their message: On Wednesday, Israeli security guards shot dead three Kurds trying to break into the Israeli embassy in Berlin amid Kurdish suspicions that Israeli agents were involved in Ocalan's capture. Kurds are still holding hostages at Greek consulates in Zurich and Bern, Switzerland, and Kurds occupying the Greek embassy in London said they were on hunger strike.

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