French claim to have seized high-ranking Eta leaders

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The Independent Online

Police in south-west France arrested two suspected Basque militants yesterday, the logistics chief of the separatist group Eta and a legendary former leader of the organisation.

French and Spanish police arrested the alleged Eta logistics chief, Felix Ignacio Esparza Luri, outside the city of Dax, Spain's Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, said.

"He was one of the members of the terrorist organisation we were most interested in arresting," the minister told a news conference in Madrid. Besides being wanted for seven killings and a kidnapping, Mr Acebes said, "at this time he was part of the terrorist organisation Eta's leadership, was in charge of logistics and also worked to co-ordinate logistics and operations for the rest of the gang's units."

The Spanish news agency Efe quoted police sources as saying Esparza Luri, 41, was in charge of smuggling explosives and stolen vehicles across the border from France for attacks.

French police said they had also arrested the former Eta leader Felix Alberto Lopez de la Calle near the town of Angouleme. Lopez de la Calle had been on the run since November 2000 when he escaped from house arrest in Bayonne by climbing out of an upstairs window and sliding down a rope made of sheets. Spanish officials were not available to comment on his arrest.

Lopez de la Calle took over the Eta leadership in 1992 after police devastated the group by arresting most of its senior members in in a raid in the French town of Bidart. In recent years, he was involved in logistics, Spanish media reported.

Esparza Luri was the latest in a series of Eta suspects to be tracked down through documents seized when Ibon Fernandez Iradi, a senior member of the group, was arrested in December 2002.

Mr Acebes praised France for its co-operation in tackling Eta. Last year, police in France arrested 37 suspected Eta members or collaborators, including several senior figures. Police in Spain arrested 120.

Spanish officials believe Eta has been seriously weakened in recent years and they cite as evidence the number of people killed in its attacks last year, three, compared to 23 in 2000 and 15 in 2001.

Eta is an acronym for Basque Homeland and Freedom. It is blamed for more than 800 killings since the late 1960s with bombings and shootings aimed at carving out a Basque homeland from territory in northern Spain and south-west France.