The Dramatic Capture of Abdullah Öcalan
In 1999 Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MiT) pulled off the dramatic capture of the most wanted fugitive in its history.
In 1999 Greece’s National Intelligence Agency (EYP) conducted a high-risk operation to transfer Abdullah Öcalan, the fugitive founding leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from Greece to Kenya to avoid his capture by Turkey's security services. The Greek plan was to hide Öcalan in the Greek embassy in Nairobi until he could be transferred to another location and Major Savvas Kalenteridis, an EYP officer, was assigned to escort Öcalan to his destination.
By 1999, Abdullah Öcalan had become the world’s most prominent Kurdish leader. His goal was to establish an independent Kurdish state by waging an armed struggle against the Republic of Turkey. The conflict began in 1984 and has claimed more than 44,000 lives. Turkey, the US, and the EU formally declared PKK a terrorist organization and Öcalan became an international fugitive in 1980 when he fled to Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon, where he had set up the PKK headquarters.
He left Syria under pressure and sought a safe haven in Italy, Russia, and finally Greece, where he arrived with two PKK aides on 29 January 1999. The group had been spirited out of St. Petersburg, Russia, on a private plane arranged by a retired EYP (Greek intelligence) officer, an old ally of Öcalan. Öcalan’s secret and unsanctioned arrival in Greece set off a scramble in the Greek government, which sought to avoid the regional and international repercussions of harboring Turkey’s most wanted fugitive before knowledge of his presence became public.
After quickly contemplating several scenarios, Athens decided to fly Öcalan and his PKK aides, escorted by intelligence officer Maj Savvas Kalenteridis, to Kenya and on to South Africa, where it hoped to negotiate political asylum for him. A Greek-registered Falcon jet carrying the Öcalan group, including Maj Kalenteridis, landed in Nairobi at 1100 on 2 February. The day before, Vassilis Papaioannou, a senior aide to Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, had informed the Greek embassy in Nairobi that the Falcon would arrive with important passengers.
The next day, the passengers arrived — Öcalan traveling with a falsified passport with the name of a prominent Cypriot journalist, and PKK sympathizer, Lazaros Mavros — and taken to the residence of Ambassador Georgios Costoulas. Maj Kalenteridis orders were to depart for South Africa as soon as possible to make arrangements for Öcalan’s asylum and to obtain a valid passport for him. Öcalan was to remain in the custody of the embassy until the arrangements were complete.
On Thursday, Ambassador Costoulas was summoned to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry where he was questioned about the Falcon and its passengers. At about the same time, Kenyan authorities in Nairobi’s airport detained and questioned Maj Kalenteridis, who was about to board a flight to South Africa. Forced to miss his flight, Maj Kalenteridis returned to his residence.
On Friday, the Kenyan government intensified its queries about the passengers of the Falcon. A nervous Amb. Costoulas called Athens for instructions, and Papaioannou told him to deny any knowledge. Later on that same day, Papaioannou switched gears and instructed the ambassador to tell Öcalan that “he needs to be removed from the national [Greek] colors” (leave the embassy).
When the ambassador asked where Öcalan should go, Papaioannou told him, “tell him to go on a safari. Tell him to go wherever he likes. He should stay away from our national colors.” When Amb. Costoulas and Maj Kalenteridis suggested transferring Ocalan to a UN building in Nairobi, where he could ask for asylum, Papaioannou rebuffed them and continued to insist on Öcalan’s removal from “Greek national colors.”
Citing fear for his life, Öcalan, rejected the eviction order and instead filed a written request for political asylum with the Greek government. As the pressure from Athens for his removal intensified, the two women PKK leaders accompanying Öcalan threatened to set themselves on fire in the embassy grounds. The standoff continued into Friday, 12 February, when it became clear that Maj. Kalenteridis was not helping his government’s cause.
On that day, the chief of EYP, Haralambos Stavrakakis, called Kalenteridis and pleaded with him to remove Öcalan out of the Residence: “Tell him to get out right away and to go wherever he wants. We didn’t promise him anything. Please I am begging you, my child!” Kalenteridis refused the order! The next day, Öcalan’s Greek lawyer arrived in Nairobi and after consulting him, Öcalan insisted, unsuccessfully, that if Greece rejected his application for asylum, Greece had an obligation to prosecute him in accordance with international law.
Again, Stavrakakis called Maj Kalenteridis and ordered him to remove Öcalan from the embassy, by force if necessary. Maj Kalenteridis again refused, saying he could not do it for practical reasons. Not long after, Maj Kalenteridis received still another call from EYP HQ, this time from someone by the name of Michalis. “Savvas listen to me, I am Tzovaras, and present are three ministers and the Chief. The careers of three ministers are on the line because of your inaction, do you understand that? You should go and remove him — Öcalan — by force at once.”
Maj Kalenteridis refused yet again, saying he was unable to use force. Tzovaras continued to plead with him. Maj Kalenteridis, unmoved, refused again, his fourth refusal into the mission. Only then did the government in Athens decide to dispatch a four-member EYP security team to enforce its orders. This development was conveyed to Amb. Costoulas by the EYP and Papaioannou at the Foreign Ministry, who informed him that “a football team” would be arriving the next day, which, if necessary, “will play ball”.
On Sunday, the 14th, at 1300 hours, the Greek security team reached the embassy Residence, having been briefly detained and questioned by Kenyan Customs (NIS agents attached to Customs) at the airport. Their instructions were: ‘Grandmother (Öcalan) is to be removed immediately. A room for him should be booked at a local hotel. He and his associates were to be taken to a location near the hotel and left there and all communication with him should be ended at that point. Everything had to be finished by Monday, the next day!’
And finished it was, but apparently not as the Greeks had intended — at least not as Maj Kalenteridis had intended. On Monday, 15th February, Amb. Costoulas was summoned to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry and told that the Kenyan government knew Öcalan was hiding at the diplomatic Residence and he was offered an aircraft for a swift departure to a country of Öcalan’s choosing. Contacted, Foreign Minister Pangalos accepted the Kenyan offer and agreed to remove Öcalan within the two-hour window the Kenyans provided.
The Greeks asked for details about the aircraft and its flight plan but were rebuffed. The Kenyan government also refused to permit the Greeks to use their embassy car (a sovereign territory) to take Öcalan to the airport, insisting instead that Kenyan government cars being used. After intense negotiations in the embassy, Öcalan boarded an unmarked Kenyan government car — driven by a Kenyan intelligence officer— without his aides and without any Greek official accompanying him.
Abdullah Öcalan was driven to the airport and to an aircraft waiting on the runway. As soon as Öcalan entered the plane the doors were slammed shut and Turkish MİT agents seized, shackled, and blindfolded him. The unmarked aircraft took off immediately and flew towards Turkey where Öcalan would be put on trial immediately.
Epilogue: Three cabinet members and the chief of the EYP resigned soon after Öcalan’s seizure. Maj. Kalenteridis would resign a year later. Öcalan was tried in 1999 in a Turkish court and sentenced to death. But it was reduced to life in prison in 2002 after Turkey abolished the death penalty. He has been serving his sentence in solitary confinement on the prison island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara off northwestern Turkey