Top ETA political leader arrested in France

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A joint operation by the French and Spanish police has led to the arrest of the suspected leader of the Basque separatist group on Tuesday, say sources.

21 May 2008

MADRID - The suspected leader of the Basque separatist group ETA was arrested Tuesday in southwestern France in a joint operation by French and Spanish police, Spanish anti-terrorism sources said.

Javier Lopez Pena, 49, alias "Thierry", who is considered by Spanish authorities be the top political leader of ETA, was arrested along with three other members of the group in a raid on an apartment in the centre of the southwestern French city of Bordeaux around 11:30 pm (2130 GMT), they said.

His arrest is the biggest blow against the organisation, blamed for the deaths of over 820 people in its 40-year campaign for an independent Basque nation, since the October 2004 arrest in France of its then leader Mikel Albizu.

French Interior Minister Michele Alliot Marie expressed her "immense satisfaction with the arrests in Bordeaux of four suspected ETA members, including one of its historic figures," in a statement released by her office.

She praised the professionalism of the police for arresting the four without injury, calling the operation a success of French-Spanish intelligence and anti-terrorism cooperation.

The other three arrested in the operation Tuesday against ETA's political leadership were named as Ainhoa Zaeta Mendiondo, Igor Suberbiola and Jon Salaberria.

"Long live ETA! We'll be victorious," they yelled as they were escorted out of the building in handcuffs by police, according to footage filmed by Spanish public television TVE, which had a correspondent present during the raid.

On the run since 1983, the Spanish interior ministry considers "Thierry" to be one of those behind the December 2006 car bomb attack on a car park at Madrid's airport that killed two people and ended a ceasefire declared by the organisation.

ETA announced a "permanent ceasefire" in March 2006 but formally called it off in June 2007 citing frustration with the lack of concessions on the part of the government in their tentative peace process.

"Thierry" is believed to have taken over ETA's underground political leadership in 2006 when the group was holding peace talks with the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

According to Spanish media he participated in the talks and was one of those who pushed for ending the ceasefire.

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

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.

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

Last Wednesday, a blast outside a civil guard barracks in the Basque village of Legutiano killed one guard.

On Monday, a blast damaged a yacht club in Getxo, an affluent suburb of the Basque economic capital Bilbao.

The car bomb attack came on the eve of a Tuesday meeting between Basque premier Juan Jose Ibarretxe and Zapatero, in which the Spanish leader once again rejected a Basque government sovereignty plan.

ETA, whose initials stand for Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language, is considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States.

[AFP / Expatica]

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