France releases, then re-arrests, ex-ETA boss

A poster calling for the release of Josu Ternera, one of the most influential leaders of former Basque separatist group ETA, in the Spanish village of Miraballes (AFP Photo/ANDER GILLENEA)

Paris (AFP) - A Paris court Wednesday ordered the conditional release of a former Basque separatist leader arrested last month after 16 years on the run -- only for him to be re-arrested after a Spanish extradition request.

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.

"This is very good news," his son Egoitz Urrutikoetxea told AFP on leaving the courtroom, with Ternera's two lawyers hailing his conditional release as "a victory for justice".

But within hours France detained him afresh at the behest of the Paris prosecutor general on receipt of a request by the Spanish authorities "with a view to his being handed over to Spanish authorities," judicial sources said,

Ternera was convicted in absentia in 2010 on charges of associating with terrorists after his fingerprints were found in an apartment known to be used by ETA operatives in Lourdes, southern France.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison, and given a new eight-year term in 2017 after again being convicted in absentia of participating in a terrorist organisation.

After eluding police for years, he was arrested on May 16 at a hospital in Sallanches in the French Alps where he had been due to have an operation that day. Now 68, he is believed to be seriously ill.

He has since filed for a retrial of the previous cases against him, with an initial hearing against the 2010 ruling heard by the Court of Appeal of Paris on Wednesday.

His lawyers had also filed a motion to avoid pre-trial detention, which the court granted under judicial control, meaning he must hand over his passport and present himself weekly to Paris police.

A second hearing regarding the 2017 conviction is set for June 28.

- Extradition to Spain? -

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 a 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.

In Spain, the Covite victims' association demanded that Ternera be extradited.

"We have been calling for this for 17 years!" said the group's president, Consuelo Ordonez.

"If France doesn't have anything (on him), which is very possible, or is unable to prosecute him, they should resolve the situation quickly and hand him over to Spain as soon as possible."

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

But in 2002, he disappeared during an investigation into his alleged role in the 1987 attack.

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