With Abdullah Ocalan from Athens to Nairobi / EXCLUSIVE interview with former Greek intelligence officer Savvas Kalenteridis


“After the death of Hafez al-Assad, Ocalan is now the greatest political leader in the Middle East region.”

Interview by Noreldin Waisy: Kurdistan Tribune – 7.5.2013

Savvas Kalenteridis is a blogger, columnist, and a former Greek intelligence officer. In this exclusive interview he talks for the first time about his travels with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the PKK. Kalenteridis accompanied Ocalan from Athens to Russia, and later from Athens to Kenya, where Ocalan was ultimately arrested by Turkish officials in 1999.

Q: When did you first become involved with the Kurdish issue?

A: I first learned about Kurdish history when I was a student at the military academy. My knowledge about the Kurdish issue deepened while I was working as a consultant in the Greek Consulate, Izmir (1992-1997). There, I was fully aware of the injustice and oppression of the Kurds in Turkey. During my time there I helped a lot of Kurds, and facilitated visas for those who wanted to leave Turkey in order to escape oppression.

Q: When did you first meet Mr. Ocalan?

A: I met him after he was forced to leave Syria and came to Greece. On October 10, 1998 the Greek government asked me to accompany Ocalan in a plane to Russia. The Syrian government gave Ocalan four days to leave their country. Meanwhile, Ocalan had contacted a Greek MP in order to help him find a way to stay in Greece. Ocalan arrived in Athens from Damascus on a Syrian Airlines plane, which was going to Stockholm, the Swedish capital.

Q: Who was the Greek MP?

A: A war veteran Greeknamed Costas Badovas, a friend of Ocalan and a supporter of the Kurds. He’s about eighty years old now.

Q: How many people accompanied Ocalan on his journey to Athens?

A: He was accompanied by three people, a female Kurdish PKK member named Rozereen and two Syrian intelligence officers. One of them was very close to Hafez al-Assad (the late Syrian president, and father of Bashar al-Assad). Ocalan contacted the Greek MP [Badovas] before arriving in Athens, and, without revealing Ocalan’s name, 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. Badovas informed the Greek Minister about the “significant figure’s” imminent arrival to Athens, after Ocalan’s plane had departed Damascus.

Q: What type of passport was Ocalan carrying?

A: A Turkish passport with the name of Abdullah Kurd. When the Greek minister asked Badovas the visitor’s name, he told him ‘Abdullah Kurd.’ Then the minister knew he might be Ocalan. 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?”

“He’s in the same place, where he always was,” I replied. Then he asked me to search quietly for Ocalan’s location. I contacted some Kurdish friends in Europe, but no one had information about the whereabouts of Ocalan. Then the chief asked me to accompany him to the airport, and he told me on the way that Ocalan will arrive very soon in Athens.

Q: How did you receive Ocalan?

A: On Friday, October 10, 1998, we moved to the airport. When we entered the airport, Rozereen and the MP (Badovas) who had been looking for Ocalan seemed to have contacted him, but his phone was switched off, because the MP was then in a meeting with the Prime Minister to inform him of the arrival of Ocalan.

Q: Where was Ocalan?

A: He was sitting in a corner of the VIP lounge. We went toward him and welcomed him. The intelligence chief directed me to lead Ocalan to one of the offices at the airport. There, the intelligence chief and Ocalan began the negotiations. Ocalan was speaking in Turkish and I was translating.

Q: How was Ocalan’s mood and psychological state?

A: Although he seemed fatigued and under great psychological pressure, he was calm and patient. The chief was impressed by Ocalan’s knowledge of diplomacy. The chief told Ocalan that the Greek government was not aware of his arrival to Greece, but Ocalan said that he had already told Badovas about his intentions before heading to Athens. The chief made it clear that the Greek government was not aware of his arrival and said that Greece cannot harbor him because it’s a neighbor country of Turkey and because both countries are NATO members.

He asked Ocalan to take the same plane to Sweden, and that Greece would help him get political asylum there. Ocalan refused to go to Sweden and said he didn’t trust them because Sweden accused PKK of killing Swedish PM Olof Palme in 1986. Therefore he requested to stay in Greece for a few days until a safe destination in Europe could be found. His fellow PKK members were working towards this end. In response to that, the intelligence chief told him that it would be dangerous to stay in Greece. Our conversation continued for nearly four hours. Then Ocalan said, “I will ask for asylum here.” We told him it’s your right to ask for a political asylum, but if you do get it, you should consider that it would be extremely difficult for you to continue your armed fighting in Turkey, while being in a status of political asylum in Greece. We took a break and Rozereen contacted the head of PKK in Russia, Mahir Welat, and asked him to see if there is an opportunity for Ocalan to go to Russia. After a while Welat sent an invitation by fax to Ocalan, signed by the Russian Parliament (Duma). Then we contacted the Russian Embassy to issue a visa to Mr. Ocalan. They were very helpful and issued a visa on the same day. We prepared a private aircraft. Ocalan requested to be accompanied by a senior Greek official. So the Intelligence Service decided to send me with Ocalan.

Q: How did you feel? Were you happy or worried? Or did you just feel you had a duty?

A: I was happy to meet Ocalan and more pleased that I was to accompany him because it was a good opportunity for me to get to know Ocalan closely and exchange views with him. At the same time, it was also a duty for me to do so.

Q: How did Ocalan react when he found out that you were accompanying him?

A: He told me, “it seems that the Greek government has dispensed of you. You’re not that important to them because we might get killed!” Anyway, we landed in Moscow.

Q: How many people were on board?

A: Ocalan, Rozereen, the Syrian intelligence officers, and me, along with the Greek pilot. During our flight I talked a lot with Ocalan about the Kurdish issue and the armed struggle. When we arrived in Moscow, Russian MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky and another politician named Mitrofanov received us warmly and shook hands with Ocalan. Zhirinovsky gave him a red scarf and a bouquet of flowers, and he was received semi-officially. Then I returned to Athens in the same plane.

Q: What did you do after your return? Did you keep in touch with Ocalan?

A: When I came back to Athens we were monitoring the situation closely. One day Rozereen called me and said, “Our father is feeling cold,” but I told her not to contact me and that she had to contact Greek officials formally. Ocalan spent thirty-three days in Russia. Then we learned that he arrived in Italy with the consent of the Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’ Alema. Ocalan spent his first week there without problems, and the Italian government tried to get the support of the rest of the European countries (Germany and France in particular) in order for Ocalan to be able to stay in Italy. But no one supported Italy. In return, Turkey imposed an embargo on Italian goods. Meanwhile a high-level U.S. delegation visited Italy to persuade them to expel Ocalan and send him to an African country known to be plagued by chaos and lawlessness so Ocalan could easily be captured.

Q: In your opinion, sending Ocalan to Africa was an American proposal?

A: Yes, it was the Americans behind it. The plot was not planned by Turkey, because Turkey does not have a strong influence in Africa.

Ocalan rejected the idea of going to Africa. Some Kurds in Europe suggested Ocalan go back to Moscow. Ocalan stayed in Italy for sixty-six days. The Italian government started putting pressure on Ocalan to leave their country, so he returned to Russia. But when his plane landed in Moscow, the Russians took him to a military base in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Russia to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov to persuade the Russians to expel Ocalan. But the Russians instead took Ocalan to Tajikistan so that they could tell the Americans that Ocalan was not in Russia. Then they took him to St. Petersburg where they told him that he shouldn’t leave the airplane because he was being a target of a kidnap and possible assassination plot by the Russian mafia. So he had to leave Russia.

The Greek government had previously told Ocalan not to return to Greece in any way, but that if he has any inquiries he must only contact the Deputy Speaker of the Greek Parliament. But instead Ocalan contacted some of his Greek friends, and secretly arrived back in Athens on January 29, 1999.

Q: How had he returned to Greece?

A: Ocalan returned to Athens by private plane with help from some of his Greek friends and supporters. It was without the knowledge of the Greek government.

Q: How did you meet Ocalan again in Athens?

A: When Ocalan arrived in Athens he wanted to go to the VIP lounge at the airport, away from the eyes of the police, but the police recognized him and informed the Greek intelligence. I was at home when the Chief of Intelligence called me and informed me of Ocalan’s arrival.

We had an urgent meeting to discuss how to deal with Ocalan. I said that, because Ocalan had come back unofficially and without the knowledge of the government, we should leave him and turn a blind eye. If the Americans or the Turks know about his arrival, we can say we are not aware of it. But the deputy chief of intelligence refused my request and searched for Ocalan and found him in a house in Athens. Then, the negotiations started once again to find a solution for this issue.

Q: What were Ocalan’s requests?

A: He said, “I have no place to go and I want to stay here.” But we refused him and we suggested many alternative places such as Libya and Lebanon, from where he could go on to Kurdistan.

Q: Going to Kurdistan, was that your proposal or Ocalan’s?

A: We told him we could smuggle him to Libya, but Ocalan asked to be sent to Lebanon in order to go to Kurdistan. Then, Ocalan’s fellow PKK members from Europe, informed him of the possibility to go to the Netherlands and seek political asylum there. Then the negotiations stopped and the Greek government prepared an airplane to move Ocalan to the Netherlands. I didn’t take part in these negotiations that took place during the night.

The next morning the Greek Intelligence Service asked me to go to the safe house that Ocalan was resting. This was the second time that I saw him. After one hour we left the safe house to go to the airport. There, they told me that I was to escort Ocalan on a plane to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Once we left for Minsk, and during the flight, they told me that Ocalan would take another plane at Minsk, a cargo plane, destined to transport him to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. However, when we arrived in Minsk, the plane that was scheduled to take us to Rotterdam did not come. We waited in our plane for eight hours but the other plane did not come. It was very cold (-17 Celsius degrees).

Q: The same people accompanied Ocalan?

A: No. This time aboard the plane were two lawyers from the Netherlands and Germany, a Kurdish woman, a Cypriot businessman, and me. When the plane that was supposed to take us to the Netherlands did not show up, we returned to Athens. When we arrived we were very exhausted and hungry. We went to a place to eat but they told us that there were security concerns and I understood that the Americans were aware about the situation, so we headed towards the island of Corfu. We stayed there for two days. The Greek government tried to convince Ocalan to go to an African country.

Q: Why did the Greeks suggested Africa when they were pretty sure that Ocalan could be arrested there?

A: Because we had no other choice and no options left. And probably because that was what the Americans dictated to the Greek government. We suggested that he should first go to a country close to South Africa, wait there until preparations had been made for him gaining a political asylum in South Africa, and then to immediately move there. Ocalan asked my opinion. I told him, “Since you don’t have any other options, you should agree, especially because the Greek government has given you at last the official support of the Greek nation and pledged to fully support you.” I added that in my view this seemed like a change in Greek official policy towards him. Ocalan agreed.

Q: The African country was Kenya?

A: At first I did not know it was Kenya, but on the way I learned that indeed it was Kenya.

Q: How many people were with you this time?

A: Ocalan, the Cypriot businessman, a Kurdish man — a citizen of Sweden, a Kurdish lady with German nationality, and me. We arrived in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and we were received by the deputy Greek Ambassador who took our passports, signed them so we wouldn’t have to pass from the passport control examination and went straight to the Ambassador’s residence.

Q: Kenyan officials were aware of Ocalan’s arrival?

A: I do not know. I don’t think they were aware.

Q: How many days did you stay?

A: Twelve days. The day after our arrival I contacted the lawyer of South African leader Nelson Mandela, who was Greek, in order to help Ocalan go to South Africa and seek asylum there. I was ordered to visit South Africa to oversee the process, but the Kenyan government did not let me go.

Q: How and why?

A: I was at the airport in Nairobi when the Kenyan police stopped me. They checked my passport for a long period of time, and I missed my flight. When I went back to the embassy I was told that the Kenyan foreign ministry had requested my passport and the passport of the Cypriot businessman. But the businessman had already left Kenya and arrived in Belgium.

Q: How did they know that Ocalan was in Kenya?

A: I do not know. On the second day of our stay in Nairobi, I read in the Turkish “Hurriyet” newspaper that the chief of the Turkish Intelligence (MiT) told the paper that they knew the whereabouts of Ocalan and he is close to their grasp.

Q: Don’t you think it may have been someone from the Greek embassy who leaked the news about Ocalan?

A: No, no, no! I believe that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a key role in finding Ocalan. According to our information, CIA officials signed an agreement with the MiT to hand over Ocalan on the condition that he would not be executed. This was the agreement between the U.S and Turkey.

Q: Did the Greek government come under pressure when Ocalan was a guest of the Greek embassy in Kenya?

A: Yes, very much. A few days after our arrival the Greek government came under a lot of pressure. Greek senior officials asked us to speed up the process of finding a solution to this crisis. At that point I said that every step must be legal and we ought to protect Ocalan’s well-being, because otherwise if something bad happened to Ocalan, his family and friends could potentially sue us. The ambassador, who was also a lawyer, agreed with me. We did not want to do anything illegal or hand over Mr. Ocalan. We are friends of the Kurds and such an action would damage the Kurdish-Greek friendship and the international reputation of Greece as well.

Q: In the end, how was Ocalan kidnapped?

A: The day that Ocalan was kidnapped was Monday. The same morning the Kenyan Foreign Ministry asked the Greek Ambassador to visit the ministry. He tried to contact Greece to receive instructions but the Kenyan authorities had cut off all our contact and communication with Athens and imposed a blockade on the embassy. Thus, the Ambassador did not want to go to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry without any official instructions from Greece. Then, Kenyan officials from the Foreign Ministry came to the embassy to take him with them even by force. So he followed the Kenyan officials to the ministry where they showed him pictures of Ocalan in the embassy that were taken via satellite and told him that they knew Ocalan was in the embassy. Kenyans expressed their willingness to transfer Ocalan in a plane to anywhere he wanted, and they suggested the Netherlands or Finland. He contacted Athens and told them about it, and they told him to agree to the Kenyan proposal because there were no other options. The Kenyan officials clearly stated that this was a one-time deal, valid only until 7 p.m. that day, and that they were not responsible if after that designated hour, assassins got inside the embassy residence to kill us and abduct Ocalan.

Finally, the ambassador went to Ocalan to explain to him the Kenyan proposal. We only had two hours left to the 7 p.m. ultimatum. Ocalan heard the proposal and said “Let’s go, we have no other time nor option and I don’t want to be a burden to my friends anymore.”

The plan was as follows. We were going to take the ambassador’s car which had diplomatic plates and immunity, to the airport, next to the stairs leading to the aircraft itself. There, I was to get of the car and check the airplane and if everything was alright and the situation seemed safe, I would then lead Ocalan and the ambassador to the plane for all of us to go to the destination that the Kurdish leader would choose.

But the Kenyans forced us to take their cars and wanted to divide us, so they brought three cars. The ambassador was in the first, Ocalan was in the middle, and I was in the third one.

The drivers were Kenyan policemen. On the way to the airport the car carrying Ocalan drove away from us and disappeared. We asked our drivers to follow Ocalan’s car but they refused and said, you will reunite with him at the airport. But when we arrived at the airport we searched for Ocalan for more than one hour and couldn’t find him. Then, since we couldn’t find him we took a cab and returned to the embassy residence. We reported the incident to Athens, that Ocalan was taken by the Kenyans, and finally the next morning we heard on the TV that he had been kidnapped.

Q: How did you feel when you saw Ocalan kidnapped and blindfolded on TV and in the hands of Turks?

A: It was a great tragedy and a very sad day for us. We cried a lot.

Q: In your opinion was the abduction of Ocalan an international conspiracy?

A: Absolutely. There is no doubt that it was an international conspiracy.

Q: Do you think that Israel had played a role in it?

A: I do not have enough information in this regard. But when we were in Kenya, I was browsing through the news while at the same time sharing them with Ocalan and conversing with him. One day I read in the Özgür Politike newspaper that the head of Israel’s Security Council and his team was in Ankara. When I showed this to Ocalan, he said, “They are there for me.”

Q: After all of this, what do you think of Ocalan?

A: Two days before his abduction Ocalan told me, “Even if I am arrested or killed, the PKK will remain alive.”

Ocalan was very much correct in what he said. After Ocalan’s arrest many predicted that the PKK would vanish after six months. But the PKK is much stronger than before. In my opinion, Ocalan is a great thinker and a great leader in the Middle East. Recently, Time magazine ranked Ocalan among the 100 most influential international figures for the year 2013. In my opinion, after the death of Hafez al-Assad, Ocalan is now the greatest political leader in the Middle East region.

Q: Have you ever been threatened by the Turks?

A: For some years I was wanted in Turkey. But I do not fear the Turks because in these issues there is a reciprocity between agencies and countries. No one would threaten a foreigner without the fear of reprisal.………………..

Noreldin Waisy is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Kurdistan region. He can be followed on Twitter via @nwaisy – A version of this interview appeared in the Kurdish weekly ‘Bas’.