Spain: Ex-ETA separatist leader Josu Ternera arrested in France

A man looks at a poster with the face of Basque separatist militant Josu Ternera in his home town of Ugao-Miraballes Spain

A longtime chief of the Basque separatist militant group ETA who had been on the run for 17 years was arrested in the French Alps region, Spain's Interior Ministry said.

In a joint French-Spanish police operation, Josu Ternera - whose real name is José Antonio Urrutikoetxea - was arrested in Sallanches.

Just a few months earlier, in June 1987, ETA had perpetrated a bomb attack against an Hipercor retail store in Barcelona, killing 21 people and injuring 45.

According to French anti-terrorism experts, at the time he employed a strategy of terror to force the Spanish government to negotiate Basque separatist demands.

Authorities say Eta, which stood for "Basque homeland and freedom", was responsible for killing more than 800 people over four decades in its aim to establish an independent Basque state. The militant group gave up its arms in 2017 and disbanded previous year after being weakened by a sustained police effort to dismantle its operations and arrest its leaders.

Police took Ternera to the courthouse in nearby Bonneville, where he appeared before a French judge who approved having him remain in custody.

Grande-Marlaska said Madrid would seek to prosecute Ternera but "without prejudice to the criminal responsibilities in France".

Guigon said Ternera had been in the region "for at least several days".

"The arrest of Josu Ternera has been a maximum priority", said Spain's caretaker Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska.

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"He could serve [his sentence] in France, but he must be sent to Spain temporarily to be judged and later be returned to France". "The collaboration and cooperation with French police and courts has been a decisive element in this victory of the rule of law over the ETA terrorist organization".

The Association of the Basque Country Victims of Terrorism said it wanted Ternera to be tried for all of his crimes.

The militant group declared a ceasefire in 2011 and gave up its arms in 2017, bringing Western Europe's last major armed insurgency to a close.

Thought to be the instigator of ETA's bloody strategy of combining vehicle bomb and shooting attacks in the 1980s, he was also one of the proponents of reaching a peace deal later on.

Spain wants to try Ternera over accusations that he ordered the bombing of a Civil Guard barracks in the city of Zaragoza in 1987 that killed 11 people including six children.

"Franco-Spanish co-operation has once again demonstrated its effectiveness", Spain's acting prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, said in a statement.

The operation to find Ternera was called "Operation Stolen Childhood".

"Basque society is moving toward the future ... but with a critical view toward its past and a commitment in the present and future to respect human rights and pluralism", Urkullu said.

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