Top ETA Leader Arrested in Southern France

Lisa Bryant

The French government Wednesday hailed the arrest of a top leader of the Basque terrorist group ETA in the southern city of Bordeaux. Lisa Bryant reports from Paris the coup marks a setback - but not the end - for Western Europe's last active terrorist group.

French and Spanish authorities jointly arrested late Tuesday Javier Lopez Peña, one of the highest ranking members of ETA - the Basque terrorist group blamed for more than 800 deaths during its 40-year campaign for an independent nation in parts of northern Spain and southwestern France. Officials said the joint operation in Bordeaux also led to the arrests of three other alleged members of the Basque extremist group.

French officials describe Lopez Peña, known also as Thierry, as an "historic figure" in ETA who has been on the run for 20 years.

In a statement Wednesday praising the arrests, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon described the joint operation as another example of the close and effective antiterrorist collaboration between French and Spanish police.

In a telephone interview from the Spanish Basque city of San Sebastian, journalist and Basque terrorist expert Gorka Landaburu said Lopez Pena's arrest marked a coup for French and Spanish authorities.

The arrest was key, Landaburu said, since Lopez Peña was responsible for an ETA car bomb attack in the parking lot of Madrid's airport in late 2006 - and for ETA's formal declaration to break off a unilateral truce several months later.

The Basque group has stepped up its attacks in recent months. It is blamed for killing a Socialist politician just before Spanish elections in March and for a major car bomb last week that killed a policeman. ETA also claimed responsibility for another car bomb on Sunday near the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao.

Landaburu noted that ETA has a system of quickly replacing its leaders every time one is arrested. But he says that even though the group is still staging attacks, it is considerably weaker than it was 10 years ago - and that its only future is to give up terrorist activities altogether.

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