Basque suspects posed as tourists in France: locals

11th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

A suspected Basque separatist commander arrested in France was posing as a holidaymaker with accomplices in a remote village when police swooped on him, locals told AFP Friday.

"They arrived almost two weeks ago. They said they were coming to visit the region, the Belgian coast," said Pierre Dufour, a hunter who lives a few hundred metres (yards) from the house where they were arrested.

"They planned to stay three weeks and they paid for it all up front," renting a cottage overlooking Willencourt, population 140, a hamlet at the end of a dirt track in the countryside south of Dunkirk in northern France.

Spanish media reported late Thursday that police in France had arrested Alejandro Zobaran Arriola, suspected to be the military chief of the armed Basque separatist group ETA, and four other suspected members.

French sources close to the operation confirmed that four suspected ETA members had been arrested in the Pas-de-Calais region where Willencourt is located but could not confirm their identity nor their role in ETA.

Spanish national radio citing counter-terrorism sources said Zobaran is the "new military chief of ETA." The report said firearms and documents were seized at the cottage in the raid on Thursday night.

Spanish daily El Pais said the owner of the cottage tipped off police about the men when he found their identity documents suspicious. It said they had pretended to be students.

"I too found it weird. For tourists, they hardly ever went out," Dufour told AFP. "One day one of them, a young man, asked me the way to a baker's. He spoke with a strong foreign accent. He was very polite, very friendly."

Another village resident, local councillor Mickael Catouillard, said police raided the house unexpectedly, with a swarm of cars and flashing lights.

© 2011 AFP

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