The Ocalan capture
A saga of bad planning and poor execution!
In 1999 Greece’s National Intelligence Agency (EYP) conducted a high-risk operation that ended in a debacle and strained its relations with the United States, Turkey, and other nations. The operation was an effort to transfer Abdullah Öcalan, the fugitive founding leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from Greece to a country in Africa to avoid his capture by Turkish authorities. Athens’s plan was to hide Öcalan in the Greek embassy in Nairobi until he could be transferred to another location. Army 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. Born in 1948 in the village of Omerli in south eastern Turkey, Öcalan became politically active during his colllege years and founded the PKK in 1974. Öcalan’s goal was to set up an independent Kurdish state by waging an armed struggle against Turkey. The conflict started in 1984, but it continues even now, having claimed about 44,000 lives!
Turkey formally declared the group a terrorist organization, a stance adopted by the US & EU as well. Öcalan became an international fugitive since about 1980, when he fled to Syrian controlled areas of Lebanon, where he set up his PKK headquarters. He was driven from Syria under pressure and sought safe haven in Italy, Russia and 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 hired by a retired Greek Navy officer connected to EYP, an old friend of Öcalan.
The Greek Intelligence (EYP) Mission
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. To deal with him,the government
called on the EYP. 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 asylum for him.
The Greek-registered Falcon jet carrying the Öcalan group, including Maj Kalenteridis, landed in Nairobi at 1100 on 2 February. The day before, Vassilis Papaioanou, a senior aide to Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, had informed the secretary of the embassy in Nairobi that the Falcon would arrive with important passengers. On the following day the passengers arrived — Öcalan traveling with a falsified passport with the name of a prominent Cypriot journalist, and PKK sympathizer, Lazaros Mavros. On its arrival, the group was taken to the residence of Ambassador Georgios Costoulas.
The following day, Papaioanou called again, this time to inform Ambassador Costoulas that from then on any communication with the foreign minister’s office could only be conducted by telephone. At this point, Maj Kalenteridis revealed his government’s complete plan. He explained that his 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.
A busy Thursday, the 4th, began with a early call from an officer of the US embassy in Nairobi seeking to arrange a meeting with the ambassador on Friday. Soon after, 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 the official Residence.
On Friday, the 5th, the Kenyan government intensified its queries about the passengers of the Falcon. A nervous Costoulas called back to Athens for instructions, and Papaioanou told him to “act like a shepherd and whistle indifferently” to the questions of the Kenyan authorities. Later on that same day, Papaioanou switched gears and instructed the ambassador to tell Öcalan that “he needs to be removed from the national [Greek] colors.”
When the ambassador asked where Öcalan should go, Papaioanou told him “The big singer [Pangalos] is upset. We did a favor and they shouldn’t make us regret it. Tell him to go on a safari. Tell him to go wherever he likes. He should stay away from our national colors.” When Costoulas and Maj Kalenteridis suggested transferring Ocalan to a UN building in Nairobi, where he could ask for asylum, Papaioanou rebuffed them and continued to insist on Öcalan’s removal from “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 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. Öcalan still had no valid passport and no fresh plans for departure to a new destination. After consulting with his lawyer, Öcalan insisted, unsuccessfully, that even if Greece rejected his application for asylum, the Greek government 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. “I am begging you, Savvas, throw him out so we can finish with this. You can do this. Be careful, because if you don’t do this when you come back they will discharge you. You can do this. There are three ministers here…” 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 Ambassador Costoulas by the EYP and Papaioanou at the Foreign Ministry, who informed him that a “a football team” would be arriving the next day, which if necessary “will play ball”.
On Sunday, the 14th, at 1300 hours, the security team reached the Residence, having been briefly detained and questioned by Kenyan Customs (NIS agents attached to Customs) at the airport. The KYP agents quickly realized they were under surveillance by Kenyan and other ‘foreign intelligence agents’. A couple of hours before the EYP officers arrived at the Greek embassy, the secretary of the embassy received a call from Papaioanou at the Foreign Ministry, who asked him to take detailed notes as he provided new directions. These, he warned, were to be followed to the letter: The “football-team” will have instructions to act fast, and if necessary by force!
The grandmother (Öcalan) is to be removed immediately. A room for him should be booked at a local hotel. He was to be taken to a location near the hotel, even if wrapped in a bed sheet. He and his associates were to be abandoned and any communication with him 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, Costoulas was summoned to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry and told that the Kenyan government knew Öcalan was hiding at the Residence. Costoulas 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.
Athens asked for details about the aircraft and its flight plan but was 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 be 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.
As he was driven to the airport Öcalan felt a sense of foreboding but kept quite and the car reached an aircraft waiting directly on the runway. As soon as he entered the plane the doors were slammed shut and MİT agents (Turkish Intelligence agency) seized, shackled and blind folded him. Immediately, the unmarked aircraft took off and flew towards Turkey. Öcalan was put on trial that year.
Epilogue: Three cabinet members and the chief of the EYP resigned soon after Öcalan’s seizure. Maj. Kalenteridis would himself resign a year later. Öcalan was tried in 1999 in a Turkish court and sentenced to death. The penalty 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.