French arrest top Basque suspect posing as tourist

11th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Police arrested the suspected Basque separatist military chief posing as a holidaymaker with accomplices in a remote village in France, officials and locals told AFP Friday.

The counter-terrorism squad swooped on the cottage where the four suspects were living in an overnight raid in the sleepy countryside hamlet south of Dunkirk in northern France.

The Spanish interior ministry said in a statement Friday that French police had identified Alejandro Zobaran Arriola, 30, suspected to be the military chief of the armed Basque separatist group ETA, among four suspects arrested.

It named ETA's logistical chief Mikel Oroz Torrea as another of the suspects, identified by their fingerprints.

Locals said the four had been posing as tourists in the remote village.

"They arrived almost two weeks ago. They said they were coming to visit the region, the coast and Belgium," 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.

French sources close to the operation confirmed that four suspected ETA members had been arrested but could not confirm their identity.

ETA is blamed for the deaths of 829 people in its four-decade campaign of bombings and shootings to force the creation of an independent Basque homeland.

Spanish national radio citing counter-terrorism sources said Zobaran is the "new military chief of ETA."

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."

French police had been watching the four for several days before swooping on Thursday evening. "One of their cars was there, but we waited for the second one to come back, to be sure we got all of them," an investigator told AFP.

A French judicial official said the ensuing raid was "lively" as one of the suspects tried to flee. Officers seized hand guns, false identity papers and two stolen cars.

Three of those arrested were known to Spanish authorities and two were under arrest warrants, one of them for "suspected involvement in a shooting,"a judicial official said.

Spanish police believe Zobaran, also known by the nom-de-guerre Xarla, took over from Mikel Karrera Sarobe who was arrested in southern France last year and charged with murder.

Zobaran would be the sixth ETA leader arrested since 2008.

Police said they were baffled by the suspects' decision to hide out in a small community in a northern region little-visited by tourists, rather than in the south frequented by Spanish visitors.

"We don't understand it. In Toulouse, four Spaniards would go more unnoticed than in the north," one investigator told AFP.

© 2011 AFP

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