Fugitive ex-leader of ETA detained in France

Madrid (AFP) –


A former leader of the Basque separatist group ETA was arrested in France on Thursday, Spain's interior ministry said, after more than 16 years on the run.

Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea Bengoetxea, better known as Josu Ternera and who was once ETA's political chief, was detained "in the early hours of the morning today in Sallanches in the French Alps," the ministry said.

Created in 1959 at the height of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, ETA waged a relentless campaign of killings and kidnappings in its fight for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France, leaving at least 829 dead.

Weakened in recent years by the arrest of its leaders, ETA announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011 and began formally surrendering its arms in 2017.

Then in May 2018, it formally dissolved.

- Hugely influential -

Spanish authorities had been trying to track down Ternera since 2002, linking him to an attack on a police barracks in the northern city of Zaragoza in 1987 which left 11 people dead, including five children.

Hugely influential within the group, the 68-year-old, who is believed to be seriously ill with cancer, led ETA from 1977 to 1992.

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.

He is thought to have introduced the tactic of car bomb attacks, for instance.

During that time, he was also elected lawmaker for Herri Batasuna, a radical Basque nationalist party widely considered to be ETA's political wing.

And he also took part in tentative first negotiations in 1989 with members of the Spanish government in Algeria, which failed.

He is wanted since November 2002 when he went on the run after being summoned for questioning at the Supreme Court over the 1987 attack on the police barracks.

While in hiding, he took steps towards negotiating a peace deal between ETA and Spain, taking part in negotiations with Spain's Socialist government.

That led him to be shunted aside in 2006 after the talks failed as more hardline elements took control.

But he still wielded influence, recording the "final declaration" announcing the separatist group had completely dissolved in May 2018.

That infuriated some of ETA's victims, who said the separatist group should first and foremost condemn its history of violence and shed light on more than 350 unsolved crimes.

Ternera "lived near Saint Gervais les Bains, an area popular for winter sports," the interior ministry said in a statement.

The mountain town is near the border with Switzerland.

He was detained in a joint operation by Spain's Civil Guard police force and France's intelligence services.

Spanish media have reported he is seriously ill with cancer.