- Basque separatists - ETA - France - Spain
AFP - Security forces in France and Spain have arrested the military chief of ETA and eight other suspected members of the armed Basque separatist organisation, the Spanish government said Sunday.
Jurdan Martitegi is the third top ETA leader arrested in the past six months.
He was detained early Saturday evening in the village of Montauriol in southwestern France along with two other suspected ETA members -- one named as Alexander Uriarte Cuadrado and another person who has not been fully identified, the interior ministry said in a statement.
As part of the same operation, Spanish security forces arrested a further six suspected ETA members during the night in the cities of Bilbao and Vitoria and the town of Renteria in the northern Basque Country.
In Montauriol, the police seized three pistols, two cars, including one with a false number plate, and "container" of a type usually used by ETA for making bombs, the statement said.
It said all three suspects were armed at the time of their arrest.
The mayor of Montauriol, Patrick Mauran, said the three were arrested near the village church hours after arriving for what appeared to be a meeting. "None of them lived in the village," he told AFP.
The interior minister statement said Martitegi "is considered the leader of ETA's military machine".
The Basque news agency Vasco Press said Martitegi, 28, had been a member of ETA's most active unit, the Viscaya cell, which was dismantled by Spanish police last July with the arrest of several members.
He is believed to have replaced Aitzol Iriondo, who was arrested in France on December 8, as leader of ETA's military operations.
Iriondo had himself replaced Miguel de Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, who was arrested in France on November 17.
The joint French and Spanish operation began in Spain with investigations by national police and those in the Basque Country, the interior ministry said.
It was coordinated by Spain's top anti-terrorist judge, Baltasar Garzon, who described it as "very good news" for the Spanish people.
In a statement issued after initial reports of the three arrests in France, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist Party welcomed the "excellent news".
It congratulated the security forces "for their constant and intense work to end terrorism inside and outside our borders. It is a task that, without doubt, counts on the maximum collaboration with the security forces of other countries as, once again, France has shown.
"Terrorists must know that the only path they can take with these actions is one that leads to prison."
ETA, considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States, is blamed for the deaths of 825 people in its 40-year campaign of bombings and shootings to carve a Basque homeland out of parts of northern Spain and southwestern France.
It resumed attacks in mid-2007 after a 15-month truce following a deadlock in tentative peace talks with Madrid, since when Zapatero's government has taken a hard line against it.
ETA earlier this month warned that the incoming regional government of the Basque Country lacked "democratic legitimacy" and would be its "priority target".
The leader of the Basque Socialist Party, Patxi Lopez, is set to become the head of the regional Basque government under a deal reached between the party and the conservative Popular Party earlier this month following local elections in March.
Lopez, who will replace Juan Jose Ibarretxe of the moderately nationalist PNV party, will be the first leader of the Basque government who unequivocally backs the region's unity with Spain since it was granted wide autonomy in 1979.
The Basque region has been run for nearly 30 years by the PNV on a platform that flirts with independence.