MOSCOW (Reuters)–Turkey’s most wanted man–Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan–on Wednesday asked Russia for political asylum and the lower house of parliament urged President Boris Yeltsin to grant the request.
In a move sure to annoy Turkey and strain steadily improving ties between the historical foes–the State Duma overwhelmingly backed an appeal calling for Ocalan’s admission to Russia and sharply criticizing Ankara’s Kurdish policy.
Ocalan–leader of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighting for self-rule in southeast Turkey–has reportedly been on the run since Turkey put pressure on Syria last month to expel him. Damascus denies that it ever sheltered Ocalan.
"In this complex situation I wish to link my fate with my allies and am therefore officially asking that you grant me political asylum in the Russian Federation," Ocalan said in a signed appeal to the State Duma.
Ankara says Ocalan–also known as Apo–has been in hiding in a Moscow suburb since fleeing Syria–but Russian security forces have drawn a blank in their search for him.
Ocalan’s statement suggested that he had not been in the Russian capital but gave no hint about his current whereabouts.
"I have always wanted and now want to come to Moscow. In the past year our side has worked intensively to bring about such a visit. But because of the complicated situation in our region I have had to take an urgent decision to move (from my base)," Ocalan’s statement said.
The Duma–dominated by Yeltsin’s Communist and nationalist opponents–unanimously backed the appeal to the president to grant Ocalan asylum–with 298 deputies in favor.
"Ocalan is not demanding the break-up of Turkey and has called three times for an end to fighting (between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels)," said Communist deputy Yuri Nikiforyenko–who sponsored the appeal to Yeltsin.
"Ocalan is ready for compromise and–to show our humanity–we must ask the president to grant him asylum," he added.
The appeal to Yeltsin condemned Ankara’s drive against the separatists in the southeastern part of Turkey.
"As a result of their 15-year undeclared civil war–Turkish troops have caused irreversible damage to the flora and fauna of the Middle East–killed tens of thousands of peaceful citizens–destroyed thousands of settlemen’s and turned millions into refugees," it said.
Yeltsin is under no obligation to heed the Duma’s request but it comes at a time of gradually improving ties between Russia and NATO member Turkey–whose rivalry in regions like the Caucasus and the Balkans stretches back centuries.
Russia’s foreign ministry declined to comment immediately.
Russia was Turkey’s third biggest export market in the first five months of this year. Turkey is also an important consumer of Russian natural gas. But Russian nationalists in the Duma–notably Turkish-speaking firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky–have long been mistrustful of Ankara and resent its increased influence in formerly Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The nationalists accuse Turkey of backing Moscow’s own separatists in Chechnya–which now regards itself as independent of Moscow after its 1994-96 war against federal Russian troops.
Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov last week in Ankara about Ocalan. He said Russia had given him assurances that it would not allow Ocalan to operate from its soil.
Turkish media reports have suggested that Ocalan has moved on from Moscow to the former Soviet republic of Armenia–which has had historically frosty relations with Ankara.
But the press secretary of Armenian President Robert Kocharian denied the reports.
"Abdullah Ocalan has not been and is not in Armenia–and official Yerevan is not preparing to invite him," his press secretary Vahe Gabrielian said in a statement.