Blow for Basque terrorists as leader arrested

The leader of the armed Basque group ETA was arrested in France yesterday, officials said, in another setback for the separatists, who have seen five of their commanders taken into custody in the last two years.

ETA chief Ibon Gogeascoechea and two other suspected separatists were arrested in a joint French-Spanish police operation in the village of Cahan, France, following a long surveillance operation on a cottage that had been rented using false identity papers, said Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba.

"We understand one of those detained is the maximum leader of ETA at this moment," he said at a news conference.

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The two other suspects were part of an ETA "commando unit" that was preparing "to enter Spain almost certainly with the worst of intentions", Mr Rubalcaba said.

French judicial sources confirmed the arrests and said the suspects had been in the house for a week, planning to leave it yesterday.

Gogeascoechea, 54, is wanted for allegedly helping to place 12 explosive devices around the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, northern Spain, in 1997 on the eve of the gallery's inauguration by the king of Spain. The plot was discovered before the bombs exploded, but Gogeascoechea's brother, Eneko, shot and killed a Basque regional policeman there.

Ibon Gogeascoechea was the fifth suspected ETA leader who has been arrested in Spain or France since May 2008, Mr Rubalcaba said.

ETA is a nationalist and separatist organisation that has killed more than 825 people since launching a violent campaign in the 1960s aimed at carving out an independent Basque homeland in an area of northern Spain and south-west France.

Spain, France, the European Union and the United States consider ETA a terrorist organisation.

The group's last fatal attack killed two police officers on the island of Majorca in July.

ETA has been weakened by the arrests of hundreds of its operatives in recent years, and it suffered a political setback in March 2009 regional elections that brought in a pro-Spanish Basque government for the first time in nearly 30 years.

This year, about 32 suspected ETA members have been arrested, many in France, and a bomb-making base in Portugal was raided by police in February.

Mr Rubalcaba said ETA has been dealt a damaging blow by co-ordinated operations in 2010.

"These last two months have been the worst two months in ETA's history," he said.