Police uncover Basque arms factory

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The Independent Online
IN THE greatest setback to date for Spain's Basque separatist group Eta, a joint French-Spanish police operation has uncovered what is thought to be the group's main arms and explosives factory, in the Basque region of south-western France.

Hundreds of weapons, weapons parts, tons of explosives, detonating equipment and a shooting range were uncovered in a pre-dawn raid yesterday on a villa in Anglet, near Bayonne, about 15 miles from the Spanish border. The sophisticated factory was in a secret basement, reached by an electronically controlled hidden trapdoor, in a villa owned by a 55-year-old French electronics engineer for the Dassault aircraft firm who had been detained earlier. There were signs that several people had fled the villa just before police swooped.

French police were still making an inventory of the armaments last night, while a team from Spain's Guardia Civil joined them in the search for clues that might lead to other members of Eta (an acronym for Basque Homeland and Freedom).

The haul followed the detention in a house nearby last Friday of the man thought to be the group's quartermaster, Pedro Gorospe Lertxundi, 56, a Spanish Basque. He was believed to be the man who procured, stored and distributed guns, explosives and other equipment to Eta terrorists inside Spain.

The weekend coup, carried out by French police after joint investigations with Spanish police, is the Basque separatist group's biggest blow since much of its leadership was arrested, also in southern France, nearly a year ago. Both countries' police forces have been looking for the main armaments factory ever since, suspecting it was in the same area around Bayonne or Biarritz, just up the coast from the Spanish Basque city of San Sebastian.

Spanish police believe putting Mr Lertxundi and the armaments factory out of action could sound the death knell for the terrorist arm of the Basque independence movement, which is showing increasing signs of division and demoralisation. Recently published 'bugged' prison tape-recordings between convicted Eta killers and their lawyers revealed that the Spanish government's policy of dispersing them around the country and on the Canary and Balearic islands appeared to be breaking the prisoners' spirits.

The tapes, recorded legally under prison regulations, also showed that the lawyers were in favour of further terrorist attacks, were acting as messengers between the prisoners and Eta leaders, and were trying to persuade the prisoners not to renounce the group's violent aims. Two lawyers were detained, and face trial on suspicion of aiding a terrorist organisation. The fact that they and the prisoners spoke openly despite the risk of being taped was seen as a further sign of the movement's demoralisation.

One of the most hardline of the 500 Eta prisoners in Spain, Juan Ignacio de Juana Chaos, convicted of 25 terrorist murders, complained that he felt abandoned by the movement and that 'I'm not prepared to take all the shit alone'. He said he had learnt only through newspapers of a dramatic no-more-violence proposal by an exiled Eta leader, Eugenio Etxebeste, better known by his nom de guerre, Antxon. In a letter from exile in the Dominican Republic after the arrest of Eta leaders in France a year ago, Antxon said the terrorist group was 'in a cul-de-sac whose only way out led to an abyss'.

After hearing the prison tapes, officials of the autonomous government of the Basque region began visiting Eta prisoners and distributing the exiled leader's letter.