Capture of ETA leader deals terrorism a major blow

21st May 2008, Comments 0 comments

Javier Lopez Pena, 49, is suspected to be the person with the most political and military weight in ETA, says Spanish interior minister.

21 May 2008

BORDEAUX - French and Spanish police have seized the suspected leader of the Basque separatist group ETA in a joint raid hailed by both countries Wednesday as a major blow against terrorism.

Javier Lopez Pena, 49, was detained along with three other suspected ETA members in a sweep on an apartment in the French city of Bordeaux just before midnight Tuesday, officials said.

Hailing the arrests as a breakthrough, Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Pena was "in all probability, the person with the most political and military weight" in ETA.

Known as "Thierry," Pena had been on the run since 1983 and is believed to have taken over the leadership of the separatists in 2006, after previous leader Mikel Albizu was arrested in France in October 2004.

The Spanish interior ministry considers him to be one of the masterminds of a December 2006 car bomb attack at Madrid airport that killed two people and ended an ETA ceasefire.

Taken into French custody overnight, the three men and one woman were brought back Wednesday to the Bordeaux apartment, where police were searching for evidence to formally establish their identities.

Three of them kept their faces hidden from the press and shouted slogans in Basque - "Long live ETA", "Love live the free Basque country" - as they were led into the building.

The fourth, his face unmasked, told reporters in heavily accented French:

"I denounce the situation in the Basque country."

So far police have discovered four handguns in the flat and two stolen cars parked nearby, officials said.

A witness to the raid, Nicolas Teuchert, told AFP he saw about 20 cars pull up outside the apartment block and police in masks, some carrying machine guns, entered the building in the centre of the city.

Police followed Pena's girlfriend Yolanda Molina, a lawyer for ETA suspects held in France, to the apartment, according to Spanish newspaper Publico.

The other three suspects have been named as Ainhoa Zaeta Mendiondo, Igor Suberbiola and Jon Salaberria.

Salaberria, a former regional lawmaker for ETA's now-banned political wing Batasuna, has been on the run since Spanish authorities for financing the Basque separatist movement.

Suberbiola was a member of Basque independence youth movement close to ETA before going underground.

Rubalcaba, speaking from the Senegalese capital Dakar, said all four suspects were "important leaders of the terrorist group".

According to Spanish media, Pena pushed for an end to ETA's permanent ceasefire announced in March 2006.

ETA formally ended the truce in June 2007, citing frustration with the lack of progress in peace talks with the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Ainhoa Ozaeta is believed to be the masked woman who read the statement in the June 2007 ETA video officially calling off the ceasefire.

The Spanish interior minister said two other people had been arrested in connection with the raid: a pro-independence former mayor from the Spanish Basque country, Jose Antonio Barandiaran, believed to have met recently with the Bordeaux suspects, and a French national linked to the rental of the flat.

French Interior Minister Michele Alliot Marie expressed "immense satisfaction", calling the operation a success for French-Spanish intelligence and anti-terrorism cooperation.

The arrests follow two ETA car bomb attacks in less than one week.

[AFP / Expatica]

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