A senior leader of the Basque militant separatist group ETA has been arrested in the French Alps after being on the run for 17 years, Spanish authorities said.
José Antonio Urruticoetxea Bengoetxea, widely known by the alias Josu Ternera, has been ETA’s most-wanted member since 2002.
ETA’s initials stand for “Basque Homeland and Freedom” in the Basque language. The group is estimated to have killed more than 850 people during its violent, decades-long campaign to create an independent state in northern Spain and southern France.
Spain wants to try Ternera over accusations he ordered the bombing of a Civil Guard barracks in the Spanish city of Zaragoza in 1987 that killed 11 people, including six children.
The 69-year old was arrested in the French Alps on a separate warrant from a Paris court that sentenced him in absentia in 2017 to eight years in prison for membership of a terrorist group.
He had been on the run since 2002 when, while he was serving as a member of the Basque regional parliament, Spain’s supreme court issued an international arrest warrant against him over the 1987 attack.
Carmen Ladrón de Guevara, a lawyer representing an association of ETA’s victims, said Ternera was “one of the most symbolic members of ETA”.
“I started to receive calls from the victims early this morning and one of them told me: ‘Finally.'”
Spain’s Interior Ministry said Ternera was arrested early on Thursday in Sallanches, a town of 16,000 in the French Alps, in a joint operation by French and Spanish security forces.
The Spanish news site El Pais said he had been on his way to receive cancer treatment when he was detained.
The 69-year-old had been living near Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, a French winter sports haven close to the borders of France, Switzerland and Italy.
Spain wants France to allow it to try Ternera before he serves his French sentence.
The elected leader of the Basque Country region in northern Spain, Iñigo Urkullu, said Basque society had moved past its painful past.
“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,” he said.
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.
Ternera announced the group’s dissolution last year.