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French Police Arrest Extremist Red Brigades Members Sought By Italy

Several former members of the Red Brigades — a violent, radical-left Italian terrorist group that was active in the 1970s and 1980s — were arrested Wednesday in France after years of living under de facto asylum, the French government said in a statement.

The seven fugitives taken into custody, all but one former members of the Red Brigades, were convicted of murder and kidnapping decades ago but later sought refuge in France before beginning their prison sentences.

Three other individuals who were not at home when French police executed the warrants are still being sought, officials said.

A statement on Wednesday from the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said Italy had issued arrest warrants after months of discussion between Paris and Rome. "France, also hit by terrorism, understands the need for justice for the victims," he said.

Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who took office in February, welcomed the French action. In a statement, he said that the "barbaric acts" committed by the fugitives "have left an open wound" for Italians.

Speaking to France Inter radio, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said it is now up to a court to decide whether the arrested individuals are extradited to Italy.

Italy originally asked for the arrest of 200 wanted individuals, Macron's office said. The Paris prosecutor's office said it would examine any request from Italy for extradition, according to Reuters.

In 1985, France's then-president, Socialist Francois Mitterrand, established a policy of not extraditing Italian far-left activists who fled to France unless there was evidence they committed "crimes of blood." The controversial "Mitterrand Doctrine" encouraged Italian activists hoping to escape justice to flee to France.

The arrests announced Wednesday include Giorgio Pietrostefani, a co-founder of the Lotta Continua – another far-left political group that has since disbanded. He was convicted in 1997 for the 1972 murder of a Milan police commissioner.

Six others arrested were all former members of the Red Brigades, a group that carried out a campaign of terror throughout the 1970s and 1980s – a period Italians call the "Years of Lead" that culminated in the the 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro.

Ostensibly, the group's main political goal was to create a Marxist state in Italy. It gradually faded into obscurity as authorities began an aggressive years-long crackdown on its members and activities.

The former Red Brigade members arrested and identified are Marina Petrella, Roberta Cappelli and Sergio Tornaghi, who were sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in murders and kidnappings during the organization's heyday. France24 said two women and five men were among those in custody.

The statute of limitations on European arrest warrants for their capture, as well as for the arrest of Pietrostefani, were to begin expiring in December, through 2023, Italian police said, according to The Associated Press.

The case of Petrella, who was convicted in the 1980 murder of Brig. Gen. Enrico Galvaligi of Italy's national police and two of his bodyguards, rose to prominence again in 2007 when she was arrested in France. French authorities initially planned to extradite her. The following year, however, the government of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy blocked her transfer on health grounds, causing an uproar in Italy.

Irène Terrel, an attorney representing five of the seven whose arrests were announced on Wednesday, denounced what she described as an "unspeakable betrayal on France's part," France24 reports.

"These people have been living under French protection since the 1980s; they have started a new life here, known to all, with their children and grand-children," Terrel said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.