Seven Italians convicted of left-wing domestic terrorist crimes in the 1970s and 1980s, including several former members of the Red Brigades, were arrested at their homes in France on Wednesday, the French presidency said, a development Italy hailed as historic.
The crimes for which they were convicted include the 1980 killing of a Carabinieri paramilitary general and the kidnapping of a judge in the same year.
The arrests followed negotiation and agreement between Italy and France after decades during which Paris refused to act on many of the arrest warrants issued by Italy for convicted left-wing terrorists. The French presidency said new negotiations started when Emmanuel Macron was elected French president in 2017, but the decisive change came when Mario Draghi became Italian premier earlier this year.
The seven arrested individuals had fled Italy and sought refuge abroad before they could be imprisoned to serve their sentences. Police in France, aided by Italian police, are still searching for three others who eluded arrest at their homes.
Five of those arrested in what Italian police said was code-named Operation Red Shadows were former members of the Red Brigades, a group active during the 1970s and 1980s that carried out killings, kidnappings and so-called "kneecappings," in which targets were shot in the legs by attackers who fled. The group later fell dormant.
Also detained was Giorgio Petrostefani, 77, a militant from the far-left group Lotta Continua (Struggle Continues). Petrostefani was convicted of the 1972 slaying of Milan Police Chief Luigi Calabresi and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
The police chief's slaying was one of the more notorious crimes during the so-called "Years of Lead,'' when acts of terrorism committed by the extreme right and the extreme left bloodied Italy in the 1970s and 1980s.
Calabresi had been leading the interrogation of Giuseppe Pinelli, a suspected anarchist, about the 1969 bombing of a Milan bank that killed 17 people. Pinelli fell to his death from the 4th floor of police headquarters. The police chief was shot three times from behind while he walked to his car. The bank bombing has never been solved. Pinelli's death inspired a play and a movie.
France established in 1985 a policy known as the "Mitterrand doctrine," named for Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. It said that Italian far-left activists who had fled to France would not be extradited to Italy unless there was evidence that they committed "crimes of blood."
The various European arrest warrants that allowed Wednesday's arrests were set to expire between December this year and 2023, according to Italian police. A French court must decide on extradition to Italy for each person individually. The French presidency said definitive decisions could take two to three years depending on appeals.
"France's decision to remove every obstacle to the just route to justice is of historic importance,'' Italian Justice Minister Marta Cartabia said. She added that "my thought today, above all, goes to the victims of the Years of Lead and to their families, kept for so many years waiting for a response."
Italian Premier Draghi, who took office two months ago, expressed satisfaction, saying the cases "have left an open wound. "The memory of those barbaric acts is vivid in the conscience of Italians," he said in a statement released by his office.
Mario Calabresi, a prominent Italian journalist and editor and son of the slain Milan police chief, tweeted that what happened on Wednesday established "a fundamental principle: there mustn't exist free-zones for those who kills." But, Calabresi, added "I can't feel satisfaction in seeing an old and sick person in prison after so much time."
French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti told a news conference: "I am proud to take part in that decision which will enable Italy, I hope, after 40 years to turn a page of history that has been covered in blood and tears."
Amid the negotiations, French investigators had decided to focus on the "more serious crimes," according to Macron's office. Italy had initially identified 200 individuals.
One of the five Red Brigades members arrested is Marina Petrella, 66, who was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of crimes including the murder of a Carabinieri paramilitary police general in Rome on New Year's Eve 1980 and the abduction of a judge in the Italian capital a few weeks earlier.
Petrella had been arrested in France in 2007, but the government of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy said in 2008 she would not be extradited to Italy due to her state of health. France's Italian-born first lady at the time, Carla-Bruni-Sarkozy, visited Petrella in the hospital, leading some to believe she played a role in the French decision.
Also arrested was Narciso Manenti, 63, from the Armed Cells Against Territorial Power, which Italian police described as a subversive group. Manenti was convicted of the 1979 killing of a Carabinieri police officer and sentenced to life in prison. Italian police said he married a French citizen in 1985.
The others arrested were:
— Roberta Cappelli, 65, and Sergio Tornaghi, 63, former Brigades members who were sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in murders and kidnappings the 1970s and 1980s, according to Italian police.
— Giovanni Alimonti, 65, another ''brigatista,'' as members of the terror group are known in Italy. He was sentenced to 11 1/2 years for being a member of an armed group with terrorist aims, as well as the attempted murder in 1982 of a Rome anti-terrorism police official.
— Enzo Calvitti, 66, also a Red Brigades member. The European warrant for his arrest runs out in December. He was given a sentence of nearly 18 years and eight months for various terrorism crimes, including arms charges.
Words by SYLVIE CORBET and FRANCES D'EMILIO Associated Press