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Spanish judge withdraws Puigdemont arrest warrant

Ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont appears on a giant screen during an event of his political platform 'Junts per Catalunya' to mark the official start of the electoral campaign for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. Campaigning officially begins at midnight Monday, and in the hours before that moment Catalan pro-independence groups hope to stage protests in front of town halls across the region against the Supreme Court's decision on the detained separatists. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

A Spanish judge has withdrawn the European arrest warrants for ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four members of his former cabinet who have been fighting extradition from Belgium.

The five could still be arrested if they go back to Spain, however, because they are still being sought for alleged crimes related to the independence bid in north-eastern Catalonia, a Supreme Court spokesman said.

Supreme Court magistrate Pablo Llarena said that individual European warrants do not apply anymore because evidence has emerged that the alleged crimes were committed as part of a wider group.

He also said that the probed politicians have shown their "intention to return to Spain" in order to run for elections in Catalonia.

The five Catalans are facing rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges among others for their roles in staging an illegal independence referendum in October that led to an independence declaration in the region's parliament.

The crimes are punishable in Spain with decades in prison.

National, European and international arrest warrants were issued on November 3, after members of Mr Puigdemont's government who remained in Spain were jailed on provisional charges.

Two ex-cabinet members, including vice president Oriol Junqueras, and two separatist activists remain in custody.

There were no immediate reactions by Mr Puigdemont and aides in Brussels to the judge's announcement, but defence lawyer Paul Bekaert was taken by surprise when he heard the news from a reporter.

Mr Puigdemont is leading his party's campaign for the December 21 election called by Spain's government in an attempt to find a democratic fix to the nation's worst institutional crisis in nearly four decades.

PIC: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

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