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Court releases ex-ETA boss after France arrest

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Paris (AFP)

A Paris court on Wednesday ordered the conditional release of a former Basque separatist leader who was arrested in France last month after 16 years on the run.

Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea Bengoetxea, alias Josu Ternera, was a top figure in the ETA separatist group which for decades waged a violent independence campaign that killed hundreds of people.

Ternera was convicted in absentia in 2010 and 2017 on charges of participating in a "terrorist" organisation, receiving respective sentences of seven and eight years.

But after years on the run, he was arrested on May 16 at a hospital in Sallanches in the French Alps where he had just undergone an operation. Now 68, he is believed to be seriously ill and had sought a retrial.

He has since filed appeals against both convictions, with his appeal on the 2010 ruling to be heard by the Court of Appeal of Paris in a hearing that started Wednesday.

His legal team had also filed a motion seeking to avoid pre-trial detention.

The court ordered his release under judicial control, meaning he will have to report to police regularly. It had yet to begin the review of his conviction.

A second hearing regarding the 2017 conviction will take place on June 28.

Spanish authorities had been hunting Ternera since 2002 over a 1987 attack on a police barracks in the northern city of Zaragoza that killed 11 people, five of them children.

Ternera headed ETA from 1977 to 1992 and was thought to be behind its strategy of combining car bomb and shooting attacks in the 1980s.

Over more than four decades of violence in pursuit of an independent Basque state, the group was responsible for the deaths of more than 800 people.

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

Ternera was arrested in France in 1989 while carrying a grenade and false papers and jailed for 10 years. He was set free in 1996 and deported back to Spain, where he was immediately jailed until 2000.

But in 2002, he disappeared amid investigations into his alleged role in the 1987 attack.

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