ANKARA (Reuters)–Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz Thursday rejected an Italian offer of a meeting to defuse an angry row over Turkey’s demand that Rome hand over a Kurdish leader.
Yilmaz’s commen’s–made as he entered parliament to face a censure vote that could bring the end of his government–showed growing Turkish fury that it may not be able to secure the extradition from Italy of its most wanted man.
State-run Anatolian news agency quoted Yilmaz as saying Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema had suggested meeting before a soccer match between Turkey’s Galatasaray and Italy’s Juventus on Wednesday in Istanbul.
"I said–’If he wants to talk–let him come to Ankara’," it quoted Yilmaz as saying. Istanbul is Turkey’s biggest city and trade center–while Ankara is its capital.
Turkey is putting pressure on Rome to hand over Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) chief Abdullah Ocalan–detained entering Italy last week. Ocalan has applied for asylum in Italy where the justice minister said he would remain under custody but not in jail.
Protests have erupted in Ankara and Istanbul while a vitriolic Turkish press has accused NATO ally Italy of treating Ocalan–widely known as "Apo," as an honored guest.
Tour companies have canceled trips to Italy in protest–imports of Italian shoes and jewelry have been stopped–and salesmen at an Istanbul market crushed Italian fruit.
The European Union stood well clear of the dispute. Austrian EU presidency sources said there had been no move to get involved in the crisis despite Italian–German and Greek commen’s that the dispute had wider ramifications.
German officials were tight-lipped on whether Bonn would seek Ocalan’s extradition for alleged PKK crimes in Germany.
Many Western European countries have migrant Kurdish and Turkish communities. Ocalan’s arrest triggered mainly peaceful rallies of Kurds across the continent.
The Anatolian news agency said a Turkish soldier had died of wounds he sustained when a Kurdish militant blew herself up near a police station earlier this week in support of Ocalan.
Yilmaz said on Wednesday Italy would be an accomplice to mass murder unless it handed over the leader.
D’Alema rejected those remarks as "unacceptable" and said Italy would follow the letter of the law as it decided on the extradition request. Italian law forbids extraditing suspects to countries which–like Turkey–have the death penalty.
The wave of Turkish fury has been fueled by a strident local media. "The flood of condemnation swells wave by wave," the Sabah daily said. "The monster responsible for the death of 30,000 must be extradited."
"Italy is preparing to put the greatest murderer and drugs smuggler under its protection," wrote Emin Colasan in the establishment Hurriyet daily.
As tough words were hurled across the Mediterranean–some 4,000 Kurds continued their "demonstration to the death" in Rome to demand that Ocalan–whom they revere–is given asylum.
While the temperature of the diplomatic battle with Italy rises–the Ankara government faces its own struggle for survival. Parliament is due to decide on Thursday on whether to hold a censure vote against Yilmaz.
Hundreds of Kurdish prisoners are on hunger strike and scores have set fire to themselves in support of Ocalan–but the majority of Turks have responded with calls for extradition.
The United States has backed Turkey’s extradition bid. Members of the European Parliament on Thursday condemned Wednesday’s remarks by Yilmaz.