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Basque Separatist ETA Leader Arrested in France

  • VOA News

French police officers stand outside a villa during a search operation in Ascain, southwestern France, Nov. 5, 2016. French police arrested the leader of the debilitated Basque militant group ETA, Spain's Interior Ministry said Saturday.

The leader of the once-feared Basque separatist group ETA was arrested Saturday in southwestern France during a joint operation by French and Spanish security forces, Spanish officials said.

Mikel Irastorza, 41, was detained in a French village in the Pyrenees, near the Spanish border. Spain's Interior Ministry said he was the "most senior leader of the terrorist group ETA still at large." Irastorza reputedly had been leading the separatist organization for just over a year, since the arrests in France of two of his predecessors.

The couple living at the home where Irastorza was arrested also were detained, and authorities said they expected other arrests to follow.

A police raid last month uncovered a cache of more than 100 handguns hidden in a forest north of Paris, supposedly by ETA, but there was no information on whether that operation was linked to the successful hunt for Irastorza, who has been a fugitive since 2008.

ETA has been blamed for the deaths of more than 800 people since the late 1960s in its push to carve an independent homeland out of territory in northern Spain and southwestern France.

The group has been weakened by attrition and a string of high-profile arrests in the late 1990s and 2000s. ETA, an acronym for the phrase "Basque Homeland and Liberty," has not been linked to any deaths in Spanish territory since 2009; its last known victim was a French police officer killed in Paris in 2010.

The separatists declared a unilateral cease-fire in 2011 but refused to surrender or lay down their weapons. ETA has since sought to negotiate an amnesty with France and Spain, but in its current weakened state it is not seen to possess any significant bargaining power.

Spain has so far resisted any settlement that would allow members of the outlawed group or their supporters make an easy transition to legal political activity in the Basque region.