By Antonio Denti and Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) - Former leftist guerrilla Cesare Battisti, facing a life sentence in Italy for murder, landed in Rome on Monday on a special flight from Bolivia, ending almost four decades on the run.
News of his arrest at the weekend in Bolivia's largest city, Santa Cruz, was greeted with joy by Italy's government and both the interior and justice ministers were on hand as the unmarked plane carrying the ex-fugitive flew into Ciampino airport.
"It is a day we have been waiting for for 37 years," said far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, denouncing the 64-year-old Battisti as a "killer, a delinquent, a coward, who never asked forgiveness".
Battisti was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for his involvement in four murders -- two policemen, a jeweller and a butcher -- in the late 1970s as a member of the far-left Armed Proletarians for Communism.
He has admitted to being a member of the group but has denied killing anyone.
Bearded and wearing a brown jacket, Battisti smiled as police escorted him from the plane and across the tarmac. He was later put on another plane and flown to Sardinia where he will serve his life term in the high security Oristano prison.
Battisti escaped from an Italian jail in 1981 while awaiting trial and fled to neighbouring France where he lived freely thanks to the protection of the-then French president, Francois Mitterrand, who was critical of Italy's legal system.
When subsequent French governments abandoned the so-called Mitterrand Doctrine, Battisti moved to Brazil, where he gained the protection of former left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and was granted refugee status in 2009.
However, Brazil's new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who took office this month, pledged to return Battisti to Italy. In December, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge ordered his arrest, but by then he had vanished again.
The former communist militant was tracked down in neighbouring Bolivia, which he had entered illegally, and arrested on Saturday by an Interpol team.
"With at least four murders on his conscience, (Battisti) lived very well between Paris and Rio de Janeiro for too many years, thanks also to the complicity of foreign governments," Salvini said in an interview with RAI state TV.
But he thanked Bolsonaro for his support, saying Battisti's return showed that Italy had regained international prestige.
Battisti, who became a successful crime novel writer during his time on the run, said last year that he feared he would be tortured and killed if he were sent back to Italy.
(Reporting by Antonio Denti and Angelo Amante, writing by Steve Scherer, Editing by William Maclean and Crispian Balmer)