Ex-Leader of Basque Terrorist Group ETA Caught in France after 17 Years on the Run
Josu Ternera has been in hiding to avoid a sentence for a terrorist attack that killed 11 people in Spain’s Zaragoza in 1987.
José Antonio Urrutikoetxea, more widely known as “Josu Ternera”, a former leader of the now defunct Basque terrorist organization ETA, has been arrested in France.
For decades, ETA fought for the independence of the Basque Country in Northern Spain and Southwest France through terrorist means killing more than 800 people. It ended its campaign of violence seven years ago.
68-year-old former ETA chief Urrutikoetxea was arrested on Thursday morning in Sallanches, in the French Alps, in a joint operation of French and Spanish law enforcement, El Pais reports, citing police sources.
Josu Ternera had been in hiding since 2002 when he fled to avoid a trial for a terrorist attack in Zaragoza, Spain, that killed 11 people.
In May 2018, Urrutikoetxea released an announcement confirmed that ETA had disbanded any structures that it had left.
“French-Spanish cooperation has proven its efficiency once more. The Civil Guard and French Intelligence Service DGSI have my appreciation,” tweeted Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
“Today, more than ever, I send a hug to all the victims of terrorism,” the Spanish leader added.
Urrutikoetxea had been a member of ETA for 50 years, and held important posts in the Basque organization.
He took part in terrorist attacks such as the December 1987 attack against the Zaragoza Civil Guard barracks, which killed 11 people, including five children.
Before that, in June 1987, ETA had perpetrated a bomb attack against an Hipercor retail store in Barcelona, killing 21 people and injuring 45.
In May 1991, ETA attacked the Civil Guard barracks in Vic, killing 10 people, five of them minors.
Urrutikoetxea joined ETA in 1968 when the group committed its first crime, the assassination of a Civil Guard officer named José Antonio Pardines. His first escape to France was in 1970.
After then ETA leader Txomin Iturbe died in 1987, Josu Ternera took over leading the Basque group to commit some of its deadliest attacks.
He was arrested in France in 1989, and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1990, of which he served 6 years there before he was extradited to Spain.
In the late 1990s, Urrutikoetxea entered politics winning a seat in the Basque parliament in 1998 – 2001, on behalf of the radical leftist party Euskal Herritarrok, and served on the parliament’s human rights committee.
In 2002, after he was summoned by a court to testify about his role in the 1987 attack in Zaragoza, ETA leader Josu Ternera went missing.
Even though he was in hiding at the time, Urrutikoetxea still took part in talks with the government of Spain’s then Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2006.
At the time, ETA was in the middle of an internal power struggle ultimately won by the hardliners Francisco Javier López Peña, better known as “Thierry,” and Miguel Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, aka “Txeroki.”
Urrutikoetxea regained prominence in ETA’s leadership once again in 2011 when the Basque separatist organization first made clear its plans of dissolution.
A Spanish court wants to try Urrutikoetxea for crimes against humanity, a legal concept that was introduced in Spain’s penal code in October 2004.
Three other ETA members were charged with the same crime in 2015 but have not been tried as they are serving prison sentences in France.
(Banner image: Video grab from YouTube)