Josu Ternera, the 'grandfather' of ETA

Madrid (AFP) –


Josu Ternera, who was arrested Thursday in France after more than 16 years on the run, is one of the most influential leaders of the former Basque separatist group ETA who oversaw deadly attacks as well as secret talks with Madrid.

He recorded the "final declaration" that in May 2018 announced the dissolution of ETA, which is blamed for the deaths of at least 853 people in its four-decade campaign of violence for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.

Born in 1950 in the village of Ugao near Bilbao, the northern Basque region's largest city, Ternera joined ETA in the late 1960s at the end of Francisco Franco's dictatorship.

He reportedly took part in the theft of explosives used in a 1973 Madrid car bombing which killed Franco?s prime minister and heir apparent Luis Carrero Blanco.

He quickly rose through the ranks to become ETA's leader in the late 1970s.

"He was a hugely important person in ETA," said Florencio Dominguez, head of the Memorial Centre for Victims of Terrorism in Spain's Basque Country and author of a book on Ternera.

Gorka Landaburu, a journalist who lost his thumb and was left blind in one eye after an ETA letter bomb detonated in his home in 2001, said Ternera "was the grandfather of the organisation" who remained respected due to his track record even after more radical members abandoned him in the 2000s.

"He was one of the heads of ETA when its deadliest attacks were carried out during the 1980s," he added.

Ternera is thought to have instigated ETA's 1980s strategy of combining car bomb attacks with assassinations by shooting.

Arrested in 1989 in southwestern France, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for criminal association.

"I was, I am and I always will be a member of ETA. I am proud to be so. I have fought in the ranks of ETA since my youth, from the moment I became conscious of the repression against my culture, my country and my language," he said during his trial.

- Madrid 'intermediary' -

In 1998 while still in jail he was elected regional lawmaker for a radical Basque nationalist grouping that included Herri Batasuna, considered ETA's political arm.

After his release from jail in 2000, he "became more political" and "served as a bridge" between the armed wing of the Basque separatist movement and its political wing, said Jose Luis Orella, a history professor at Madrid's CEU Universidad San Pablo.

"His prestige and his weight within the terrorist organisation gave him a leading role within the leftist Basque separatist movement and made him one of the best intermediaries for the Spanish government," he added.

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.

According to Spain's National Court, he is wanted for alleged involvement in the police barracks attack and the murder of a director of French tyre company Michelin in Spain, among other cases.

Ternera played a key role in secret talks held in Switzerland and in Norway beginning in 2005 with emissaries of the Socialist government of former prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero which ended in failure. In 2006 he was sidelined by more radical ETA members.

Jesus Eguiguren, the former head of the Basque Socialist party who took part in the secret talks with ETA, said that despite this demotion Ternera played a "key role" in the end of ETA.

"He showed that he really wanted to end terrorism," Eguiguren added.