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World - Europe

Turks jubilant over Ocalan's capture

February 16, 1999
Web posted at: 12:51 p.m. EST (1751 GMT)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- In markets and cafes, Turks rejoiced on Tuesday as news spread of the arrest of the man held responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the 15-year fight for Kurdish self-rule.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told the country that Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan had been apprehended and brought to Turkey, where he faces trial for treason.

"I was so happy. The shock has left me speechless," said Arif Kalelioglu, a 20-year-old man who has yet to perform the obligatory 18 months of military service that punctuates every Turkish man's life.

People across the country draped red and white Turkish flags from their homes and offices.

In the southeastern city of Gaziantep, mothers whose soldier sons were killed during the conflict handed out baklava, a syrupy Turkish sweet, to passers-by, Anatolian news agency said.

Daily newspapers printed rare evening editions to mark the capture of Ocalan, known as "Apo."

Newspapers proclaim victory

"Victory," proclaimed the mainstream Hurriyet daily in a large banner headline. "Turkey showed the world it was a great state by capturing the baby-killer."

A hero to many Kurdish nationalists but the "chief terrorist" to the majority of Turks, Ocalan's separatist campaign touched almost every life in the country of 62 million people.

More than 30,000 soldiers, militiamen, rebels and civilians have died in the conflict between security forces and Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party rebels.

"He had to come eventually. And now he is here it is a great thing," said Fahime Akas, a banker.

In Istanbul and in the capital Ankara, news spread quickly. Many saw it as a vindication of Turkey's hard line against Kurdish nationalism that has brought accusations of human rights abuse from the Western allies.

Shares on the Istanbul Stock Exchange soared 8.41 percent on Ocalan's arrest, while bond yields dropped sharply at the treasury's two auctions.

A conflict with dire effects

The conflict had strained Turkey's economy and devastated the mainly Kurdish southeast.

At a Kurdish cultural center in Istanbul, home to many Kurdish migrants who have fled the war-ravaged southeast for cities in the west, the mood was glum.

"The whole world has betrayed the Kurdish people," said one Kurdish man who asked not to be named.

Ocalan, refused entry into many European countries, was detained in Kenya in unclear circumstances after 12 days holed up in the Greek Embassy there.

Security measures stepped up

In the eastern Turkish city of Tunceli, once the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between the rebels and security forces, security was tight. Checkpoints searched all people entering and leaving the city and police were out in force.

"All security measures have been doubled as a precaution against possible actions by the organization and its sympathizers," Tunceli Governor Mehmet Ali Turker told Reuters.

At the city offices of the main legal Kurdish party, the People's Democracy Party, officials and supporters refused to comment. The air was thick with cigarette smoke.

While many Turks called for a swift and strict trial for Ocalan, others saw Prime Minister Ecevit emerging as a winner. He is already admired by many Turkish nationalists for ordering the 1974 invasion of Cyprus.

"It is the second time Mr. Ecevit has found himself at the head of a situation which is so great for our national pride. I'm sure he'll do well at elections," said one well-dressed old man in central Istanbul.

General elections are scheduled for April 18.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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