Spain hails arrest of Eta chief

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The Independent Online
The arrest in France at the weekend of Spain's most wanted Basque guerrilla, Rafael Caride Simon, was hailed in Madrid as a breakthrough in Spain's intensified war against the Basque separatist movement.

The arrest of the man believed to be the head of Eta's terrorist operations ended a momentous week during which French police, in co-operation with their Spanish counterparts, arrested six other Eta leaders in and around Paris and in France's own Basque region, as well as uncovering an important Eta arms 'factory' near Bayonne.

Mr Caride Simon, 42, hunted on both sides of the border for 10 years, was drinking beer in a restaurant in Toulouse on Saturday night, carrying false identity documents and with a pistol tucked in his belt, when French police surprised and overpowered him without a fight. He was taken to Bayonne, in the southern Basque region, where he was interrogated last night by France's special anti- terrorist unit against Basque guerrillas. His arrest came after French police found Eta documents in one of the group's 'safe houses' in Rambouillet, near Paris, last week.

Spanish police say Mr Caride Simon was the former head of Eta's so-called 'Barcelona Commando' and planned the car- bomb attack on the Hipercor supermarket in Barcelona in July 1987. It was Eta's bloodiest assault to date, in which at least 21 shoppers died. The attack was seen by many as a turning-point in the organisation's fortunes, its cold- blooded murder of women and children sickening many Basques who until then had sympathised with the group's aims.

Survivors of the supermarket bomb, many of whom say they have never recovered mentally, expressed relief yesterday and said they hoped Mr Caride Simon would be returned to Spain to face trial and the sort of sentence - often totalling more than 1,000 years - handed down to Eta's most ruthless assassins.

Eta, a Basque acronym for Basque Homeland and Liberty, has gradually lost sympathy in Spain's Basque country in recent years, with Basques turning out in their tens of thousands in anti- violence marches and rallies. French and Spanish police struck their biggest blow against the group in March last year when much of its leadership was uncovered and arrested in the French town of Bidart, near Bayonne.

Last weekend, in the same area, French police arrested Pedro Gorospe Lertxundi, thought to be the group's arms quartermaster, then uncovered the arms and explosives 'factory' in the sprawling basement of a middle-class villa.

Home-made pistols, and sub- machine-guns based on the Israeli Uzi, had been produced in the villa in quantities far higher than needed by Eta, Spanish police said. The group had apparently been selling the weapons in large numbers to middlemen buying them up for shipment to various zones of conflict in Eastern Europe and throughout the Middle East, they said.

Spanish government officials said yesterday that the policy of 'dispersion' of Eta prisoners to jails around the country was bearing fruit. Two-thirds of some 600 prisoners, who had kept firmly united when they were held together, unbent somewhat when separated and renounced violence, the officials said. The prisoners are now scattered around 60 prisons, usually with no more than 15 Eta convicts in each.