Suspected Basque separatists involved in massive explosives theft

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The Independent Online

A group of armed bandits, possibly Basque separatists, stole more than a ton of explosives from a warehouse in south-east France and held nine people hostage for several hours during the heist, police said.

A group of armed bandits, possibly Basque separatists, stole more than a ton of explosives from a warehouse in south-east France and held nine people hostage for several hours during the heist, police said.

A man suspected of taking part in the raid was detained today at a police roadblock in the Ardeche region. Police said his vehicle, which had false registration plates, contained weapons and documents linked to the violent Basque separatist movement ETA.

The raid happened in Verey, on the outskirts of Grenoble yesterday. The hostages, who were all at the home of the warehouse's security guard, were freed unharmed. They included a couple and their baby.

The robbers stole 1.6 tons of explosives and 20,000 detonators, police said. The explosives were the kind often used on building sites.

Police from Paris' anti-terrorist unit are investigating. The detained man was also found to be carrying false identity papers.

ETA has killed some 800 people since it began campaigning in 1968 for an independent Basque state linking parts of northern Spain and areas in southwestern France. The group has claimed or been blamed for 26 killings since it ended a 14-month truce in December 1999.

ETA does not normally carry out attacks in France but its members often take refuge in safehouses in France's southwestern corner, and weapons stashes have also been found in the region.

One hostage, Nicole Destenave, said that the group spoke Spanish and said they belonged to ETA.

Destenave, who was visiting the security guard's family at the time of the raid, said between six and eight armed robbers burst in and ordered everyone on the ground.

While two robbers guarded the hostages, the others emptied the warehouse of explosives, in a three-hour operation. The explosives were taken away in one or two trucks. Two hours later, the hostages were freed.

"They kept their masks on all the time. They spoke Spanish and were very polite. They were considerate as well, because they asked us several times if we wanted a drink or needed to go to the bathroom," Destenave said.

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