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Argentina's 'Blond Angel' surrenders to police

Aziz, right, is escorted to to federal courtin Buenos Aires in 1998
Aziz, right, is escorted to to federal courtin Buenos Aires in 1998  

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, July 2 (Reuters) -- One of the most infamous death squad leaders of Argentina's 1976-1983 "Dirty War" dictatorship, Alfredo Astiz, surrendered to police early on Monday after an Italian court sought his arrest.

The former navy captain, known as "The Blond Angel" for his cherubic looks in his youth, was ordered detained by a judge at the request of an Italian court which linked Astiz to the 1976 kidnapping of Angela Maria Aieta and the 1977 kidnappings of Giovanni Pegoraro and his pregnant daughter, Susana Pegoraro.

Aieta and Giovanni Pegoraro were Italian immigrants to Argentina.

"In the case of an extradition, which must be sought by Italy's justice minister, Astiz would be transferred to Italy where he would be interrogated by judge (Claudio) Tortora and myself as prosecutor in this case," Italian prosecutor Francesco Caporale told Argentine radio.

Astiz was taken into custody shortly after midnight (0400 GMT) and held at a Coast Guard criminal investigation center.

The Italian court has also requested the arrest of five other former officers, including the hated navy chief Emilio Massera, a member of the military junta from 1976 to 1980. The military ruled until 1983.

Astiz cannot be prosecuted in Argentina for murders or torture during the dictatorship since he is protected under the so-called Full Stop and Due Obedience amnesty laws enacted in 1986 and 1987 when Argentina tried to reckon with its past.

No immunity for baby thefts

But Argentine authorities were able to arrest Astiz because baby thefts were not included in those immunity laws.

Susana Pegoraro's baby was allegedly handed over to the family of former navy officer Policarpo Vazquez. His daughter, Evelyn Vazquez, asked the Argentine Supreme Court on June 30 to authorize genetic tests, La Nacion newspaper said on Monday.

During Argentina's dictatorship, pregnant women detained by the military were often killed after giving birth and their babies stolen to be raised by military families.

Astiz was allegedly part of a "task force" operating in the infamous Navy School for Mechanics, or ESMA, in the campaign against leftist guerrillas and suspected sympathizers.

An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 suspected dissidents were killed or disappeared during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Astiz boasted to an Argentine magazine in 1998 that he was "the best-trained man in Argentina to kill journalists and politicians."

"I'm not sorry for anything," he said in the interview. He was later given a three-month suspended jail term for speaking out in support of the human rights abuses during the Dirty War.

The son of Angela Aieta, Dante Gullo, who as a Peronist Party activist was detained during the dictatorship, welcomed the news: "This is very emotional for me. My mother's case has been the focal point of my life for the last 25 years."

Sweden, France may ask for extradition

Astiz infiltrated the rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in the 1970s and allegedly led the death squad that kidnapped and killed its founder and 11 other people. He is accused of the murder of two French nuns and a 15-year-old Swedish girl.

Argentina compensated Swedish teen Dagmar Hagelin's father last year with an undisclosed sum. She was abducted by an ESMA squad believed to have mistaken her for another target. Her body was never found but Astiz is wanted by Swedish courts for her kidnapping and murder.

"A preliminary investigation is under way to determine whether a full-scale inquiry should be launched," Swedish Public Prosecutor Thomas Lindstrand told Reuters in Stockholm.

"It's almost 25 years since these events took place," he added. Under Swedish law, charges for crimes like kidnapping can be pressed up to 25 years after the alleged incident.

Ragnar Hagelin told Argentine radio he was "very happy" but also cautious since it had yet to be determined whether the arrest could lead to Astiz's extradition.

Astiz narrowly escaped extradition to France in 1982 after he surrendered to British troops in the Falklands War. In 1990 a French court sentenced him in absentia to life in prison.

"The lawyers for the families (of the French nuns) have immediately asked the French judicial authorities to do everything necessary to make sure A. Astiz be arrested on the back of the Interpol arrest warrant issued by France more than 10 years ago," French lawyers said in a statement.

Copyright 2001 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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