ROME, ITALY - Italy sent an aircraft to Bolivia on Sunday to pick up fugitive left-wing militant Cesare Battisti after he was captured there nearly three decades after being convicted of murder in his home country. The development sets the stage for a climactic end to one of Italy's longest-running efforts to bring a fugitive to justice.
Bolivian police, working with Italian agents on the ground, arrested Battisti, 64, overnight in Santa Cruz de La Sierra, Italian police said. He had been living in Brazil for years, but last month Brazil's outgoing president signed a decree ordering his extradition, apparently sparking Battisti's latest flight.
Italian police released a video of Battisti they said was taken hours before his capture, showing him seemingly oblivious to the surveillance cameras tracking him as he walked casually down the street in jeans, a blue T-shirt and sunglasses. A subsequent image showed Battisti's mug shot under the seal of the Bolivian police.
"Cesare Battisti's long flight is over," Justice Minister Alfonso Buonafede declared.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said a government aircraft was expected to land Sunday afternoon in Bolivia, but it wasn't clear if Battisti had to first pass through Brazil. Italian and Brazilian authorities vowed to have Battisti extradited "as quickly as possible."
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called him a "delinquent who doesn't deserve to live comfortably on the beach but rather to finish his days in prison."
Battisti escaped from an Italian prison in 1981 while awaiting trial on four counts of murder allegedly committed when he was a member of the Armed Proletarians for Communism. He was convicted in absentia in 1990, and is facing a life term for the deaths of two police officers, a jeweler and a butcher.
Battisti has acknowledged membership in the group but has denied killing anyone and has painted himself as a political refugee.
Battisti initially fled to Mexico and then went to France, where he joined dozens of left-wing Italian militants who enjoyed official protection from the French government.
Like Battisti, they had fled during Italy's "years of lead," a bloody and turbulent era during the 1970s and 1980s when militants on the left and right carried out bombings, assassinations and other violent acts to try to bring down the Italian government.
After political winds shifted in France, Battisti fled to Brazil in 2004 to avoid being extradited. He was arrested in Rio de Janeiro in 2007, prompting the Italian government to request that he be handed over. But former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva granted him asylum in 2010.
Battisti was eventually released from jail but was arrested again in 2017 after he was caught trying to cross the Brazil-Bolivia border carrying the equivalent of about $7,500 in undeclared cash. He was released after a few days.
As a result of that incident, Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal Justice Luiz Fux said in December that Interpol had issued a request for Battisti's arrest on tax evasion and money laundering charges, leading him to issue a Brazilian warrant. Based on that, outgoing Brazilian President Michel Temer signed the decree ordering the fugitive's extradition.
Brazil's new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, hailed Battisti's arrest, vowed to turn him over to Italy and denounced da Silva's government for having granted the Italian asylum.
"Finally, there will be justice for the Italian assassin and partner of ideas of one of the most corrupt governments to ever exist," Bolsonaro tweeted in a reference to da Silva's Workers' Party.
While a Bolivian government official said Battisti could be flown directly to Italy, Bolsonaro's international affairs adviser, Filipe Martins, said late Saturday that Battisti would be brought to Brazil first.
The Brazilian security minister, Augusto Heleno, said Sunday that Battisti would be taken on a Brazilian plane to Brazil before he is sent to Italy, according to the G1 news portal.
Salvini praised Bolivian police and Brazil's new government for following through on the fugitive's case.
President Sergio Mattarella said Battisti should be returned to Italy to "serve his sentence for the grave crimes that stained Italy and let the same be said for all fugitives abroad."