- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 28, 2010

MADRID — The leader of the armed Basque group ETA was arrested in France on Sunday, officials said, in another setback for the separatists, who have seen five of their commanders taken into custody in the past 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, Spanish Interior Minister Alferdo Perez Rubalcaba said.

“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 Sunday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Mr. Gogeascoechea, 54, is wanted for allegedly helping to place 12 explosive devices around the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 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 Mr. Gogeascoechea’s brother, Eneko, shot and killed a Basque regional policeman there.

Ibon Gogeascoechea was the fifth suspected ETA leader to be arrested in Spain or France since May 2008, Mr. Rubalcaba said.

ETA is a nationalist and separatist organization 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 northeast Spain and southwest France.

Spain, France, the European Union and the United States consider ETA a terrorist organization.

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 long has been used as an ETA hideout. In February, a bomb-making base in Portugal was raided by police.

Mr. Rubalcaba said the ETA has been dealt a damaging blow by coordinated Spanish, French and Portuguese police operations in 2010.

“These last two months have been the worst two months in ETA’s history,” Mr. Rubalcaba said.

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 northeastern Catalonia.

During Sunday’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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Jimenez is wanted for his links with a 2001 foiled rocket attack on former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, the ministry said.

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