Josu Ternera, one of the most influential leaders of former Basque separatist group ETA, was arrested in France on Thursday after more than 16 years on the run, Spain’s interior ministry said.
Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea Bengoetxea, who used the alias Josu Ternera and was once ETA’s supreme chief, was detained “in the early hours of the morning today in Sallanches in the French Alps,” the ministry said.
“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.
After becoming one of the group’s leaders in the late 1970s, Ternera then took the top spot.
Thought to be the instigator of ETA’s bloody strategy of combining car bomb and shooting attacks in the 1980s, he was also one of the proponents of trying to reach a peace deal later on.
Then in May 2018, while still on the run after avoiding arrest, he recorded the “final declaration” announcing the separatist group had completely dissolved.
According to Spain’s Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, he is wanted in France and Spain.
The Madrid-based National Court, which deals with terror cases, is preparing to ask for his extradition to Spain.
Arrested At Hospital
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 853 dead.
Weakened by the arrest of its leaders, ETA announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011 and began formally surrendering its arms in 2017.
Then last year in May, it formally dissolved.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez welcomed the arrest of Ternera, saying “Franco-Spanish cooperation has once again demonstrated its effectiveness.”
Sallanches Mayor Georges Morand told AFP that Ternera, who is believed to be seriously ill with cancer, had been arrested “in the carpark of the Sallanches hospital where he was going for treatment.”
A French judicial source, who refused to be named, told AFP he was admitted to hospital after being taken to the police station as he asked to be seen by a doctor.
In the next few days, he will be taken to Paris where he will be questioned by prosecutors, the source 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.
Hugely influential within the group, the 68-year-old led ETA from the late 1970s to at least 1989 when he was detained in France.
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.
Years after his detention in France in 1989, he was sent to Spain and spent four years in jail, after which he was released, said the writer Dominguez.
He was elected regional lawmaker for a radical Basque nationalist grouping that included Herri Batasuna, considered the political arm of ETA.
Ternera had been 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 in Switzerland and Norway.
But he was shunted aside in 2006 as more hardline elements took control, even if he still wielded influence within the weakened group. The talks eventually broke down.
Ternera “lived near Saint Gervais les Bains, an area popular for winter sports,” the Spanish 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.
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.
In France, meanwhile, he was sentenced in absentia in 2017 to eight years in jail for “conspiracy to commit terrorism”.