Football celebrity 'killed by Eta'

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The Independent Online
JOSE Antonio Santamaria was a darling of the Spanish and international jet set. A retired football player for the first division side Real Sociedad, the Basque team now managed by the Welshman John Toshack, he moved into the nightclub and bar business and was a well-known figure in both the Basque country and the Balearic island of Ibiza.

On Tuesday night, in his hometown of San Sebastian, the 47- year-old father of two was enjoying local Basque specialities in a private gastronomic club just before midnight. That is when the town traditionally explodes into its noisy annual festival, that of the patron saint that gives it its name. He did not get a chance to look up from his plate.

A young man posing as a kitchen worker walked up from behind and fired a bullet into the back of his neck before disappearing in the ensuing confusion. Police are convinced that it was the work of the Basque terrorist group Eta, trying to re-establish itself after seeing much of its leadership network caught in Spain and France last year. After a lull of many months, Eta launched a fresh series of attacks late last year and the authorities believe a newly-formed cell plans further attacks in Madrid.

Mr Santamaria, nicknamed 'Tiger' in his days as a central defender for Real Sociedad, used to own the renowned KU nightclub in Ibiza and liked to be photographed with such jetsetters as Prince Albert of Monaco, the singer Julio Iglesias and the director Roman Polanski. He had been investigated two years ago for suspected involvement in cigarette smuggling but was never charged. Last November, when he was again briefly detained on suspicion of smuggling narcotics and bribing policemen, the investigations again failed to produce enough evidence to charge him.

The police do not rule out the possibility that Eta was opposed to his alleged drug dealing. But they believe Mr Santamaria's close friendship with a leading Basque politican, Jose Maria 'Txiki' Benegas, number three in the ruling Socialist Party of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, may have motivated the assassination.

The mayor of San Sebastian went ahead with the town's fiesta. But even as the traditional drum bands marched through the streets yesterday, pro-Eta youths shouted slogans such as 'Viva la Muerte' (Long Live Death) and stoned police who were guarding the scene of the murder.