- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Members of the Basque terrorist group ETA have been conducting financial and propaganda activities in Bolivia with the knowledge of President Evo Morales, according to Spanish intelligence reports cited by the Madrid newspaper El Pais and the local press.

Officials in Bolivia have confirmed that six members of the Basque separatist organization traveled to Bolivia and met with high-level officials of the Morales government during the past year.

According to these officials, Mr. Morales and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, have had relations with ETA members since 2005, predating Mr. Morales’ 2006 inauguration.

“Members of ETA have been purchasing homes and creating a new refuge for the organization in Cochabamba, where they move like fish in water,” according to El Pais.

Cochabamba, which is Bolivia’s narcotrafficking center and contains the country’s main legal coca plantations, is a stronghold of the ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

Mr. Morales denied in a Feb. 22 press conference any links with the Basque separatist group, which has been responsible for a number of fatal bombings in Spain. “I personally don’t know anybody in ETA,” he told Bolivian reporters.

But his congressional leader, Edmundo Novillo, recalls meeting with representatives of a group called Askapena — which is associated with ETA’s political wing Batasuna — who were invited to attend sessions of Congress last year.

“I did not know that these people supported or had any relation with ETA,” Mr. Novillo was quoted as saying in the Bolivian press.

A former interior ministry official, Rafael Puente, who until recently headed the Center for Documentation and Information, also recalls receiving the Basques.

“Novillo told them to come and see me,” he said in published remarks. “I wanted support for a project. But they did not offer money. We talked about problems in [the Basque region] and here.”

The officials were quoted saying they greeted the Basques, including Gaizka Uharte, Narda Iturri, Inaki Etiaio and Juan Jose Loihotxea, during the August inauguration of Bolivia’s constituent assembly in the city of Sucre, at which Askapena participated flying the Basque nationalist flag.

“All groups connected with ETA are tied to terrorism,” said opposition Sen. Tito Hoz de Vila, who says he has discussed the matter with Spain’s ambassador to Bolivia, Francisco Montalban. “ETA has created new front groups since Batasuna was proscribed by the Spanish government in 2003.”

According to Mr. Hoz de Vila, at least one member of the group traveling to Bolivia, Mr. Loihotxea, has a prison record in France where he was arrested for aiding acts of terrorism. He went to Venezuela after completing his prison sentence and now forms part of ETA’s “international apparatus” in Latin America.

Another suspected ETA gunman who has been detected in Bolivia, Inaki Olaskoaga Mujica, has worked with Mr. Loihotxea as part of ETA’s directorate in Venezuela, according to Spanish police sources. El Pais reported that Mr. Olaskoaga entered separately through the land border with Peru and currently lives in Cochabamba’s Chapare Valley.

The Spanish foreign ministry has requested official explanations from Bolivia since reports about ETA’s presence started surfacing in January. Batasuna at the time released a communique praising the MAS government and calling it a “model” for the Basque region.

Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said that a report had been forwarded to Madrid. A reply from the Spanish government, saying whether criminal charges are pending against any of the individuals, was expected later this month.

But diplomats are doubtful that any extradition will result “due to the nature of existing legal agreements with Bolivia,” according to a Spanish official.

A deputy for Bolivia’s opposition Podemos party, Walter Arrazola, said he thinks the Socialist Party government in Spain is likely to “soft-pedal” the matter as “it might affect current peace negotiations with ETA and spark a crisis with Bolivia.”

Spain has obtained past extraditions of ETA gunmen caught in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. But it has been unsuccessful in arresting terrorism suspects based in countries ruled by radical leftist regimes such as Venezuela and Cuba, which are aligned closely with Bolivia.

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