Four suspected members of the Basque separatist organisation Eta went on trial in Spain on Wednesday accused of planning a missile attack on a plane carrying then prime minister José María Aznar in 2001.
The four face prison terms of up to 72 years each if convicted of the charges that include “attempted terrorist killings” and “belonging to an armed organisation”, at Madrid's National Court which handles terrorism cases.
Eta is blamed for more than 800 killings in its campaign of bombings and shootings to create an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.
In October, 2011 it declared a “definitive end to armed activity”. But it has refused to formally disband or disarm and police say about 20 members are still active.
The four, now aged between 55 and 61, are accused of plotting three attacks against a plane carrying Aznar in the northern Basque Country before regional elections.
“Eta decided to kill Aznar … (and) … tried three times, but the missile launchers were defective,” the charge sheet said.
The chief defendant, Luis Ignacio Iruretagoyena Lanz known as “Suny”, has been held in France for the past eight years where he was arrested in 2007.
He is alleged to have recruited the three others, Pedro Maria Olano Zabala, Gregorio Jimenez Morales and Juan Maria Mugica Dorronsoro.
The missile launchers were picked up in early 2001 in southwestern France, and then hidden in an abandoned building in the Basque Country.
The four had planned to shoot down Aznar's plane on April 29th, 2001 when he was launching an electoral campaign in the Basque city of Bilbao.
Two of the accused were to hide the weapons near the town of Hernani, and then come back to collect them, but the plan was aborted.
Two other attempts were made on May 4th and 11th, 2001, according to the charges, before they decided the missile launchers were defective.
Aznar, who served as conservative Popular Party prime minister between 1996 and 2004, was frequently an Eta target.
He survived an Eta car bombing in Madrid in 1995 when he was leader of the opposition. The car's armour plating protected him but one woman was killed and another 15 people were wounded.
A trial of 35 members of Basque separatist parties including Batasuna, Eta's banned political wing, began on December 3th. The defendants are accused of carrying out political activities to back Eta.