Spanish policeman killed by Eta booby-trap bomb

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A booby-trapped roadside placard praising the Basque separatist group Eta exploded yesterday when paramilitary police in a patrol car stopped to examine it, killing a corporal and injuring his three comrades.

A booby-trapped roadside placard praising the Basque separatist group Eta exploded yesterday when paramilitary police in a patrol car stopped to examine it, killing a corporal and injuring his three comrades.

The attack came within hours of a bomb blast in which two Eta suspects died while handling their own explosives, and a week after Spanish ministers hailed "the beginning of the end of Eta" after arresting the group's top two commanders in France.

Corporal Juan Carlos Beiro, 32, died from stomach wounds after he and three colleagues were hit by shrapnel from a bomb hidden that was behind a roadside sign and detonated by remote control. The bomb was placed beside the road from San Sebastian to Pamplona between the Basque town of Berastegui and Leiza in the neighbouring Navarra region.

Charred remains of the sign showed the Eta symbol, a serpent coiled around a hatchet, and reportedly contained the words: "Long live Eta. Civil Guard die here." A sergeant remained in hospital in serious condition. It was the first fatal attack attributed to Eta since August when a car-bomb exploded outside a Civil Guard barracks on the Costa Blanca killing two people including a six-year-old girl.

Politicians' words of satisfaction about the deaths on Monday night of two suspected Eta terrorists froze on their lips at news of yesterday's attack. Two Eta suspects died in Basurto near Bilbao when some 15kgs (33lbs) of dynamite exploded in their car. The Spanish Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, said: "The explosives were contained in a rucksack in the car, so the terrorists were almost certainly planning an attack the next day."

One of those in the car was identified as a wanted Eta member, Odei Galarraga, by the photograph on false documents amid the wreckage.

The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, speaking shortly before the second blast, said the two victims of Monday's explosion were terrorists bent on killing innocent people. "All those in the terrorist group Eta, which is a band of murderers and criminals, know their only destiny is either prison ... or [as] victims of their own actions and bloody determination," he said.

Police also found remains of pistols, false registration plates and a long-distance electronic detonator. The Basque Interior Minister, Javier Balza, warned that Eta had "more infrastructure and more active members".

To concede that Eta remains fully operational is quite an admission after the severe crackdown of recent months. Complementing an unprecented security operation, the courts have suspended the Batasuna party, seen as Eta's political wing, and the Supreme Court is considering a total ban requested by parliament. Madrid is convinced its hard line will finish off Eta, and refuses to consider talks.

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