Spain judge withdraws Puigdemont arrest warrant

International arrest warrants for ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four members of his former cabinet were withdrawn Tuesday after a Spanish judge ruled the orders no longer applied.

Puigdemont and the other four ministers have been fighting extradition from Belgium since they fled a month ago after declaring unilateral independence for Catalonia in a referendum ruled illegal by Spain.

A Supreme Court spokesman said the five could still be arrested, however, if they return to Spain at any point because they are still being sought for crimes related to the independence bid.

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

A rebellion charge is considered one of the most serious crimes in Spain and carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years.

Supreme Court magistrate Pablo Llarena said Tuesday individual European warrants don't apply anymore because evidence has emerged the alleged crimes were committed as part of a wider group.

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

The arrest warrants were issued on Nov. 3, after members of Puigdemont’s government who remained in Spain were jailed on provision charges.

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

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

Meanwhile, campaigning has begun for the Dec. 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.

On Monday, Puigdemont said the new vote was a choice between “nation or submission.”

“They can choose between Catalan institutions or dark characters in Madrid,” he said in a video from Belgium, according to the BBC.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.