ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkish troops Monday captured an elusive Kurdish leader in a raid in northern Iraq so secret that even Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz was kept in the dark until it was over.
Security sources said an army special forces team grabbed the Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) former field commander Semdin Sakik outside a house in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk.
"He was brought back to Turkey and is now under interrogation by special forces," a military source told Reuters.
Sakik–known as "Fingerless Zeki" after losing a thumb in combat–was the guerrillas’ most feared commander.
He surrendered last month to Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) militia allied to Turkey–after PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan had threatened him with death in a dispute over tactics.
The PKK often operates in northern Iraq in its fight for Kurdish self rule in southeast Turkey. Turkey also keeps forces inside northern Iraq–controlled by Iraqi Kurdish groups who broke from Baghdad after the 1991 Gulf War.
State-run Anatolian news agency quoted Yilmaz as telling reporters during a visit to Central Asia that he did not know in advance about the army’s plans to capture Sakik.
Turkish governmen’s leave the fight against the guerrillas mostly to the powerful military and Deputy Prime Minister Ismet Sezgin said he had first learned of the arrest from news reports.
Sakik has been blamed for a string of attacks on troops–police and civilian authorities.
His most notorious action was the killing in 1993 of 33 unarmed soldiers on a remote road in eastern Turkey that broke a cease-fire against the PKK leader Ocalan’s orders.
Turkish officials and Kurdish sources say rebels under Sakik’s command forced the troops–mostly young conscripts–off a bus at night–lined them up and gunned them down.
Troops had failed to find Sakik in numerous hunts in the mountainous Turkish province of Tunceli in the mid-1990s. Security officials several times erroneously reported his death.
Anatolian said Sakik had been taken to the southeastern city of Diyarbakir for questioning. It said a brother of Sakik was also detained.
The army source said Massoud Barzani–head of Iraq’s KDP–had refused Turkish requests to hand over Sakik.
"We made some deman’s to Barzani but he did not accept so we staged this operation," he said. Nobody was injured in the seizure–he said.
The KDP condemned the seizure operation and said it was a blow to its close ties with Turkey.
"The KDP strongly condemns and deplores this action by Turkish forces… This act seriously undermined good neighborly relations," the group said in a statement faxed to Reuters.
The KDP has allied itself with Turkey since late last year in its struggle with another rival Iraqi Kurdish militia for the control of northern Iraq.
Government officials said Turkish undercover forces had been observing Sakik. "He was followed–seized and brought back," Deputy Prime Minister Sezgin told reporters after a cabinet meeting.
PKK chief Ocalan threatened over the weekend to step up attacks if Turkey did not agree to a cease-fire and dialogue.
Turkey has ignored previous PKK calls for a peaceful solution to the conflict and refuses to negotiate with the group–which it considers a terrorist organization.
Ankara says Ocalan–who is wanted for "treason and crimes against the state," lives in Damascus but Syria denies Turkish charges of sheltering him.
Clashes between security forces and the PKK have broken out recently in the Mediterranean tourist province of Anatolia as well as in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.