How Kenya got sucked into Kurdish wars

Members of the Kurdish community wave flags and banners of Abdullah Ocalan, convicted leader of Kurdistan Worker's Party, during a demonstration on February 14, 2015 calling for Ocalan's release in Strasbourg, eastern France. PHOTO | FREDERICK FLORIN | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Öcalan was looking for a place to hide – and Kenya was to offer a secret sanctuary as he looked for asylum in South Africa.
  • But things went wrong; so wrong that he still regrets why he flew to Nairobi.
  • A simple mistake at Nairobi’s Hotel Boulevard changed all that.

On February 2, 1999, at 11.33 pm, a Greek-registered Falcon jet landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. That morning it had left Corfu International Airport in the scenic Kerkyra Island of Greece, carrying the world’s most wanted fugitive, Abdullah Ocalan, disguised as a prominent Cypriot journalist by the name Lazaros Mavros.

Together with Ocalan were six travellers who included Ms Nucan Derya, described by the media as an attractive 23-year-old activist with honey-gold hair. She was also the interpreter for the group. Others were a former Greek intelligence officer and blogger Sawas Kalenteridis, a man spotting the old-fashioned leftist moustache made famous by Russia’s Joseph Stalin, the pilot, two lawyers and a Cypriot businessman.

Ocalan was looking for a place to hide – and Kenya was to offer a secret sanctuary as he looked for asylum in South Africa. But things went wrong; so wrong that he still regrets why he flew to Nairobi. A simple mistake at Nairobi’s Hotel Boulevard changed all that.

The founder of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had then waged a 15-year armed struggle in Turkey and Iraq for the recognition of a Kurdish state, Ocalan had been portrayed negatively in the Turkish media as a “baby killer” in a country where more than 1,000 people were convicted for simply referring to him as “Mr Ocalan”.


By flying to Nairobi, Ocalan had been lured to the wrong country and at the wrong time. It was only six months after the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy and the city was swarmed with CIA and Israeli Mossad operatives – hunting for clues on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror group cells in East Africa.

Ocalan’s choice of Greece as his protector from Turkish threats was strategic. The two countries had been involved in a diplomatic row known as the Imia crisis since 1996 and over two small rocky uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea – known in Greece as the Imia islets and in Turkey as Kardak rocks.

That morning – and applying the Sanskrit adage: “An enemy of my enemy is my friend” – the Greek ambassador to Kenya, George Kostoulas, sent his deputy to JKIA to give the new arrivals some diplomatic cover having been instructed by his country. Actually, the Greek embassy in Nairobi had requested for a diplomatic clearance of the French-built Dassault Falcon 900 as it touched down at the airport.

As Sawas Kalenteridis, the intelligence officer accompanying Ocalan, would later say, the deputy Greek ambassador “took our passports, signed them so we wouldn’t have to pass from the passport control examination and (we) went straight to the ambassador’s residence [in Muthaiga].”


Here Ocalan and his team thought they were safe; but they were wrong.

What they didn’t know was that the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had been asked by then Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to help him capture Ocalan, a man he held responsible for the death of more than 44,000 people. Netanyahu had turned the challenge to his Mossad chief Efraim Halevy and asked him to launch a “black operation” which meant that nobody would ever find out Israeli’s involvement.

For years, Ocalan had evaded arrest by first hiding in then Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon where he had on June 2, 1979, set up the headquarters of PKK, a movement he had founded in 1974. He also had a secure home in Damascus, the Syrian capital, until international pressure forced him out in October 1998.

Cannot tolerate

The ban on PKK’s operations in Syria was after Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller sent a warning in November 1993 to the Russian-backed Hafez al-Assad saying: “Turkey cannot tolerate terrorist attacks from any of its neighbours. No one should think Turkey will remain silent about such attacks.” A few weeks later, Syria “banned” PKK saying “from now on PPK or Ocalan may not make use of or pass through Syria.”


But this was a diplomatic stunt since Ocalan continued to operate from Syria. Incensed Turkey, a member of Nato since 1952 and with a strong military and Western backing, threatened to attack Syria and kick out Ocalan. October 10, 1998, Ocalan finally left Damascus aboard Syrian Airlines for Athens, Greece, accompanied by a senior Greek intelligence officer Col Sawas Kalenteridis – the man who would later bring him to Nairobi – together with another intelligence officer who was close to President Hafez Al-Assad.

In Greece, he had got in touch with a local MP and war veteran Costas Badovas. As Kalenteridis would later reveal “the MP informed the relevant Greek Minister that a significant figure was on his way to Greece and asked him to provide the required facilities for the guest at the airport without making any fuss about it.”

By then Ocalan was travelling with a fake Turkish passport under the name Abdullah Kurd and the minister knew that Ocalan was on the way after he was told the visitor’s name was Abdullah Kurd. “He therefore called the Chief of Greek Intelligence Service and told him that Ocalan will arrive in Athens in half an hour. So the chief called me and asked, ‘where is Ocalan?’”, Kalenteridis would later reveal.


At the VIP lounge of the airport, Ocalan was sitting waiting to be allowed to enter Greece. According to Kalenteridis “he seemed fatigued and under great psychological pressure.” He was then led to an office at the airport and, for four hours, he was interrogated and told that he could not be allowed to enter Greece, which is a member of Nato, while still waging war against Turkey, another member. Further, the Greece government said it was “unaware” of his arrival and wanted him to take the same flight he came with and go to Sweden where Greece would help him get political asylum.

But Ocalan was not willing to go to Sweden since the country had accused PKK of being behind the 1986 killing of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme – and after a break, Ocalan’s female assistant named Rozereen decided to call Russia’s PKK head Mahir Welat – and in a few hours, Ocalan had an invitation by Russian parliament faxed to its embassy and instructions to issue him with a visa. He left aboard a private aircraft and was received by Russian MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But Ocalan did not stay for long as he was tossed between Russia and Tajikistan (to ostensibly tell Americans that Ocalan was not in Russia) before he left for Italy with the consent of the Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema.


But an embargo of Italian goods in Turkey and pressure from Nato forced them to return Ocalan back to Russia as they looked for an African country to take him. It was while Ocalan was in Italy that Benjamin Netanyahu was asked by Turkey to help capture him.

Unknown to Ocalan, the Mosad sent six agents to Rome who set up surveillance near Ocalan’s residence close to the Vatican.

Among the agents was a pretty girl who was supposed to lure Ocalan out of his hideout and drug him – a style that was used by Mossad to capture its former nuclear technician, Mordechai Vununu, who had also escaped to Italy after selling some nuclear secrets. But the Mossad were not lucky this time: Ocalan vanished back to Russia where he was taken to St Petersburg and asked not to leave the airplane because he was a target of a kidnap and possible assassination plot by the Russian mafia.

But rather than stay here, he secretly flew back to Greece arriving in Athens on January 29, 1999. All this time, the Mossad thought he had flown from Italy to Nairobi aboard a KLM flight but that appears to be a disguise. On February 2, 1999, when he reached Nairobi, there was another recorded attempt to enter Holland, according to Gordon Thomas, the author of Gideon Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad.


The Mossad finally arrived in Nairobi on February 5, 1999 and quickly located him at the Greek Embassy compound in Nairobi. The Mossad chief Efraim Halevy had asked his boys to only watch and do nothing. In Nairobi, they set up eavesdropping equipment to monitor all communication coming out of the Muthaiga compound. They found that Ocalan was getting restless and that South Africa was still not willing to accept him.

Mistake number 1

At Hotel Boulevard in Nairobi, one of the men accompanying Ocalan went for a drink. Mistake number one.

Inside the hotel was a Mossad agent, with Kurdish looks and spotting the Stalin moustache associated with PKK. He spoke Kurdish patois too and lied that he was working in Nairobi. The Ocalan man bought the lie and revealed that the PKK leader was in Nairobi. They exchanged numbers later that night.

The following day, the phone rang at the Greece embassy compound. The Israeli agent wanted an urgent meeting with his Kurd “friend”. They met at Hotel Boulevard and he told the agent that Ocalan’s life was in danger if he remained in the compound.

At that time, the Mossad had received instructions to arrest Ocalan “by all means” but they could not do it at the embassy. The whole idea was to lure him out.


Back at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, minister Bonaya Godana was getting restless. He had summoned the Greek ambassador seeking to know the identity of the people who came aboard the Falcon jet. Before he met Godana, Costoulas called home and spoke to Vassilis Papaioanou, a senior aide to Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos. It is now reported that he was told to “act like a shepherd and whistle indifferently to the questions of the Kenyan authorities”.

As Godana and the Kenya government increased pressure on Ocalan to leave, two of the women in his entourage threatened to set themselves on fire – if Greece tried to remove him from the embassy where he had now officially sought asylum.

Papaioanou issued yet another order that Ocalan should leave the compound – and embassy officials were now caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. It was now February 12 and everyone knew that Ocalan was in Kenya.

That evening, it would later emerge, the Greek chief of intelligence Haralambos Stavrakakis, called Col Kalenteridis, the man who had escorted Ocalan, and pleaded with him to kick Ocalan out of the residence: “Tell him to get out right away and go wherever he wants. We didn’t promise him anything. Kick him out, Savvas ... I am begging you, my child!”


There was one problem. Ocalan had travelled with a fake passport and thus could not leave without a new one. The Greeks were not willing to issue him with travel documents either. Back in Greece, the prime minister was threatening to fire his three ministers and they decided to send “a football team” to Nairobi with firm instructions. Get Ocalan, codenamed “grandmother” out of the embassy and dump him in a local hotel. That had to be done by Monday, February 15.

That Monday, Godana summoned the Greek ambassador and told him that a plane was available to fly out Ocalan to a safe destination and that the Greek Foreign Minister Pangalos had accepted the Kenyan offer. Ocalan, frightened by the arrival of the “football team”, agreed to leave before the 7 pm ultimatum issued by Godana and he thought he was being flown to Amsterdam.

“Before he got into the car the ambassador got a call from the Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, saying that Mr Ocalan could go to Europe. As Ms Derya would later tell Reuters, the call “seemed that we got a guarantee that a door that was always closed now appeared open. They gave us that impression. Ocalan said, “Let’s go to Amsterdam’”.

Three vehicles were to leave for the airport and Ocalan boarded an unmarked police vehicle without his aides and not the embassy vehicle. It was a mistake since he was now in the hands of the Kenyan government. He was driven to the airport and placed on a waiting plane, where Turkish agents were waiting for him. “You’ve come to the end of the road, we are going to Turkey”, he was told.

It was the end of the road for Apo, as he was known among the Kurds. He is still in prison.