Spain: 2 suspected ETA members arrested

BILBAO, Spain – Police in Spain and France arrested two suspected members of ETA on Tuesday, suggesting the government in Madrid will keep up pressure on the violent Basque separatist group despite the latter’s declaration of a permanent cease-fire.

In raids held less than 24 hours after ETA’s cease-fire announcement, a suspect considered to be a computer encryption expert for the separatist group was arrested in a joint operation with French police in the southern French town of Ciboure.

A Spanish Interior Ministry statement identified him as Iraitz Gesalaga, 27, and said his girlfriend, Itxaso Urtiaga, 21, was picked up back across the Spanish border in the beach town of Zarautz.

Gesalaga had been sought since his name emerged in papers seized when an ETA leader was arrested in May 2008, the statement said.

A senior government official speaking separately said Gesalaga had links to Colombia’s FARC rebels and that the arrests’ coming a day after the cease-fire were a coincidence because the suspects had been under investigation at least since March.

The government statement said only that Spanish authorities were probing whether the suspect had had contacts with the FARC.

Gesalaga is one of ETA’s top experts in computer techniques for encoding messages and documents, and Urtiaga may have helped him, the statement said.

“The arrests carried out today are a major blow for ETA,” it said, without mentioning the cease-fire.

In declaring the new, permanent cease-fire — nearly a dozen truces have preceded it over the years — ETA said it was open to letting international monitors verify this one. ETA called this cease-fire a firm step toward ending a decades-long independence fight.

But Spain’s government quickly dismissed the announcement as not going far enough, and demanded that ETA disband and lay down its arms.

The group, however, did not mention dissolving or giving up weapons — key demands from successive Spanish governments. And a previous cease-fire that ETA declared in 2006 and called permanent ended with violence after only nine months.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said ETA’s announcement wasn’t enough and that the group must take “more forceful and definitive steps” He ruled out negotiations with ETA.

“Those who see some element of hope in ETA’s announcement need to know that the road ahead is still long, because the only thing that matters is the definitive end of the ETA terrorist group,” Zapatero told the Antenna 3 television network.

Europe’s last major violent political militant group declared a cease-fire in September, but went farther on Monday by specifying that the group now supports a “permanent and general cease-fire which will be verifiable by the international community.”

It added: “This is ETA’s firm commitment toward a process to achieve a lasting resolution and toward an end to the armed confrontation.”

ETA also said it is open to dialogue and negotiation but it reiterated its standard positions, such as its insistence that the Basque people have the right to decide whether to remain part of Spain or break away.

Zapatero ruled out negotiations, saying the government won’t accept conditions imposed by the group and insisted there “will be no dialogue” with ETA.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who is also Spain’s deputy prime minister, said ETA arrogantly maintained a catalog of demands in its cease-fire declaration: “In other words, ETA still wants a price to be paid for ending violence.”

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