MADRID (AFP) – Spain’s interior minister hailed the arrest in France on Sunday of the suspected military chief of the armed Basque separatist group ETA.
“A very significant operation has taken place in France,” Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told reporters after the arrest of alleged ETA leader Ibon Gogeascoechea Arronategui, 54, in the town of Cahan, in the Normandy region of northern France.
Spanish authorities called him the Basque separatist movement’s “most senior” member.
Arrested with him was Beinat Aguinalde Ugartemendia, 26, suspected of assassinating a socialist politician and a businessman in 2008, the interior ministry said in a statement.
The ministry initially identified a third suspect arrested as Gregorio Jimenez Morales, 55, a presumed member of an ETA commando unit which allegedly transports equipment for carrying out attacks.
But in a later statement it said police tests had “virtually ruled out” that the person is Morales and are attempting to determine his identity.
Rubalcaba had said the two “were part of a commando ready to enter Spain” to launch attacks.
The pair “came to say goodbye to the military chief, who gave them their final instructions as ETA has a habit of doing”, he added.
With 32 arrests in Spain, France and Portugal since the beginning of the year, ETA “has experienced the worst two months of its history”, Rubalcaba said.
“They have lost explosives, a logistical base in Portugal,” where authorities seized 800 kilos (1,760 pounds) of explosives in February, he added.
Despite the slew of recent arrests, “we do not rule out an attack by ETA”, Rubalcaba said.
French officials said the three suspects were arrested at their home in Cahan.
French and Spanish police also seized three firearms, false documents, explosives, money and computer equipment during the joint operation.
The latest arrests come amid stepped-up, cross-border cooperation by French and Spanish police against ETA, blamed for 828 deaths in its 41-year campaign for independence in the Basque region of northern Spain and southwestern France.
ETA figures on several terrorist blacklists, including those of the European Union and the United States.
Several members of the separatist outfit, mainly members of its armed wing, have been arrested in France in recent years.
In November 2008, police in France arrested the then military chief of the organisation, Garikoitz Aspiazu, and captured his successors Aitzol Iriondo and Jurdan Martitegui over the following months.
Last October, they also detained the suspected political leader of ETA, Aitor Elizaran.