The leader of the armed Basque group ETA was arrested in France today, 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 nationally televised news conference.
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 today.
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 US consider ETA a terrorist organisation.
The group’s last fatal attack killed two police officers on the island of Majorca in July.
But 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, which has long been used as an ETA hideout. In February, a bomb-making base in Portugal was raided by police.
Mr Rubalcaba said ETA has been dealt a damaging blow by co-ordinated Spanish, French and Portuguese police operations in 2010.
“These last two months have been the worst two months in ETA’s history,” said Mr Rubalcaba.
He said nearly 4,400 pounds of explosives, detonators and guns had been seized, an ETA base in Portugal has been dismantled and the separatists have been prevented from setting up a base in north-eastern Catalonia.
During today’s raid, French police found explosives, a stolen car that had been falsely registered in France in January, documents and computer equipment, Mr Rubalcaba said.
The other two ETA members were identified by Spain’s Interior Ministry as Beinat Aguiagalde, 26, and Gregorio Jimenez, 55. All three ETA suspects are wanted by Spain’s National Court on suspicion of involvement in terror attacks.
Aguiagalde is wanted in connection with the murders of former Basque regional politician Isaias Carrasco in March 2008 and businessman Ignacio Uria Mendizabal in December 2008.
Jimenez is wanted over his alleged links with a 2001 foiled rocket attack on former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, the ministry said.