Coup for French as Eta trio snatched

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The Independent Online
IN A coup for the French and Spanish authorities, anti- terrorist police arrested three leading members of the Basque separatist organisation, Eta, in Paris yesterday - hours before a visit from the Spanish Prime Minister.

Two other Eta members were arrested in co-ordinated raids on a hotel and an apartment in the French capital after a lengthy inquiry and surveillance by French and Spanish security services. The biggest catch was Javier- Arizcurten-Ruiz, known as "Kantauri", who is head of Eta's military wing. But police said they had also arrested Irantxu Gallastegui Sodupe, the most wanted woman in Spain, who is believed to have been involved in the assassination of the young conservative politician, Miguel Angel Blanco, in July 1997.

This pair, and two other suspected Eta members, were arrested as they left a hotel in the 11th arrondissement, near the Place de la Bastille in eastern Paris. Only Ms Gallastegui Sodupe put up any resistance. A few minutes later, two men were arrested and a computer seized at an apartment in the 15th arrondissent in south- western Paris.

Eta has been observing a truce since September. There was speculation that yesterday's arrests might cause the group to break the ceasefire, though French officials suggested that the arrest of these hardliners might push the peace process forward.

Later yesterday, the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, held talks with his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin, before lunching with President Jacques Chirac. The Eta members, thought to have been in Paris for some time, are not suspected of planning an attack on Mr Aznar. It seems more likely that the arrests were timed by security services in Paris and Madrid to coincide with the official visit and thereby magnify the public impact of the coup.

Anti-terrorist police are said to have monitored a meeting between the six at a cafe in Paris the previous evening.

The other arrested suspects were named as Jesus Maria Puy Lecumberry, Mikei Zubimendi Besarasategui, Jose Ignacio Herranz Bilbao and Juan Maria Sampredo Blanco.

There is likely to be a heated legal battle over their extradition to Spain. In theory, French courts refuse to extradite people accused of "political offences". In recent years that definition has been held to exclude crimes of terrorism, but the French and Spanish authorities will have to produce evidence of the involvement of the six in terrorist attacks.

Mr Aznar has said he is willing to hold talks with Eta representatives but that a perma- nent secession of the Basque country from Spain would not be on the agenda. Asked about the truce in an interview with Le Monde yesterday, he said: "Every day without a death is a step forward ... but it would be naive to think that after 30 years of terrorism everything can be resolved in a few weeks."

Eta is estimated to have killed 800 people during its 31- year struggle for the independence of the Basque country in north-eastern Spain.