Eta cell in deadly Paris shootout

French police officer dies after suspected Basque separatists open fire
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A French police officer has been killed in a shoot-out near Paris with suspected members of the Basque separatist group Eta.

It is the fifth police shoot-out with Eta in France since 2001, but the first time a French officer has died.

Dozens of high-ranking Eta operatives have been arrested in France in recent years, thanks to increased co-operation with Spanish investigators.

"This time France has paid a high price for its collaboration in the fight against Eta which is so important for our freedom and our security," said the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in an address to parliament. "I can assure you that I've felt the murder of this officer as though he were a member of our own state security and police forces."

The shoot-out occurred after French police responded to a report of a stolen car in Dammarie-les-Lys, 50km outside Paris. Four suspected Eta members – three men and a woman – had broken into a used car dealership, tied up an employee and stolen several BMWs, according to Spanish press reports.

Police surprised the group while they stopped for fuel along a highway. But while officers identified and handcuffed the first suspected Eta operative, an Eta rescue contingent of one or two cars sped to the scene and opened fire, killing the French officer. Police are now combing the area for the so-called Eta "commando" unit.

El Pais newspaper identified the French officer as Jean-Serge Nérin, a 52-year-old with four children. He was reportedly wearing a bullet-proof vest, but the bullets struck an unprotected part of his body.

The shootout follows the arrest last month of the alleged Eta chief Ibon Gogeascoechea in the French village of Cahan. Gogeascoechea was wanted for allegedly placing explosives around the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao before a visit by the Spanish King. He was the fifth suspected Eta leader to fall into police custody since 2008, but Spanish authorities vowed not to lower their guard, and they warned that the band's more violent military wing had gained power within the group.

"Let nobody be deceived, Eta is up to its business as usual," said the Spanish Interior Minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, yesterday after speaking to the French Interior Minister. He said the killing would only serve to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. "The only thing to come out of this is even more collaboration," Mr Perez Rubalcaba said. "Effectively, they are fighting on our side."

France and Spain have not always appeared united in the fight against Basque separatists, who have killed more than 800 people in their fight for an independent homeland in parts of northern Spain and south-west France. In 1991, the former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, then the conservative opposition leader, criticised what he saw as the lacklustre French approach.

But the relationship between French and Spanish police has changed dramatically in the last two decades, growing especially close after Nicolas Sarkozy, now French President, took the helm of the French interior ministry in 2002. "Whenever democratic Spain needs help in the fight against these killings, democratic Spain can count on the French Republic," he once announced.

Homeland and Freedom: 50 years of violence

1959 Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom), or Eta, created to work for an independent Basque homeland

1968 Seven years after it began its violent campaign in 1961, Eta kills its first victim, a secret police chief

1980 118 people killed in the campaign's bloodiest year so far

1987 21 people killed in supermarket bomb in Barcelona. Eta apologises for "mistake"

1997 Soon after 6 million Spaniards protest at Eta's tactics, leaders of political wing jailed for collaborating with the group

1998 Eta announces indefinite ceasefire, which ends 14 months later after negotiations fail

2006 Eta announces new "permanent" ceasefire, but in December it bombs Madrid airport; ceasefire ends in 2007

2010 Senior leader Ibon Gogeascoechea arrested in France