Argentina's 'Blond Angel' is arrested for Italian abductions

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Argentina's reviled Blond Angel, the former naval captain Alfredo Astiz, surrendered to Interpol yesterday and now awaits extradition to Rome for abducting three Italians during the 1976-83 military junta.

Already convicted in absentia for the murder of two French nuns in 1990, the retired officer has never served time in Argentina for his role in the alleged disappearances of thousands of people and baby thefts because of a blanket military amnesty granted for Dirty War atrocities. Last year, he received a three-month suspended jail sentence after boasting of his knack for torture.

Captain Astiz, 49, is accused of abducting three Italian citizens: Giovanni Pegoraro, his pregnant daughter Susana, and Angela Maria Aietta, the mother of a prominent Peronist.

DNA evidence recently proved that an orphan whose adoption was arranged by the military is the daughter of a missing Italian. She is presumed murdered, like hundreds of other pregnant leftists who vanished during the regime. Extradition procedures are expected to be lengthy, and Captain Astiz will be held in protective custody. He has twice been recognised on Buenos Aires streets and beaten.

He was allegedly a hitman at the sinister Naval Mechanics' School (ESMA), where an estimated 5000 leftists were murdered after being tortured in the basement. Captain Astiz would often joke with colleagues about "flying nuns", a reference to his ordering the bodies of two French Catholics, Leonie Renee Duquat and Alice Doman, to be hurled from an airplane, says David Blaustein, a documentary filmmaker who interviewed scores of ex-military officers.

Estela Carlotta, the president of The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a lobby group that demands government answers on their disappeared relatives, said: "Astiz is a nefarious symbol of what Argentina was during the terror. For this reason, I hope that he will get what the other repressors did not, that they extradite him." She recalled how recent extradition efforts by the Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon had been thwarted. Dozens of torture trials had been prevented from taking place abroad.

Among those accused of human rights abuses was Captain Astiz. He was captured and held as a prisoner after the Falklands War but was eventually sent home from Britain by Margaret Thatcher, who refused extradition requests by Sweden and France for the murder trial.

Captain Astiz once argued in a Buenos Aires courtroom that the navy was responsible for training him to destroy, place bombs and kill, and he merely was following orders to bring in dissidents "dead or alive".