Spanish police arrested virtually the entire leadership of the Basque separatist party Batasuna yesterday in a raid on a clandestine meeting of the banned organisation. Twenty-three people were detained at a Batasuna summit in the Basque village of Segura where, according to police, the party's old guard were preparing to hand control to new leaders. The arrests were ordered by Spain's leading anti-terrorism judge, Baltasar Garzon, who led moves to outlaw Batasuna five years ago when he accused it of being a front for the armed separatist group, Eta.
The raid is the most dramatic crackdown on the Basque separatists since the socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was elected in 2004.
Calls for independence are becoming more strident in both the Basque country and in Catalonia ahead of Spain's general election next March.
The Batasuna leaders, including their spokesman Joseba Permach, were led away in handcuffs by plain-clothed officers whose faces were hidden by hooded tops and balaclavas. The raid coincided with more than 15 house-to-house searches throughout the region.
Last night, it was unclear what charges were being brought against the detainees, 16 of whom were said to be members of Batasuna's national committee. Mr Garzon is known to be investigating allegations that Batasuna financed the activities of Eta, which called off a 15-month ceasefire earlier this year.
The raid in Segura is the latest operation in a four-month crackdown against the separatists which included the arrest in June of Batasuna's leader Arnaldo Otegi on charges of "glorifying terrorism".
Mr Permach, who has acted as the party's main spokesman since Mr Otegi's arrest, and his colleagues were due to be transferred for questioning to Madrid, a judicial official said. The Attorney General, Candido Conde Pumpido, welcomed the arrests, saying some of those held were accused of co-operating with an armed group. "These activities cannot be tolerated, so if the police find out about them, as they did in this case in Segura, it seems prudent that they be ordered to intervene," he told the public radio station RNE.
However, the only senior Batasuna activist still at liberty said the arrests were an attempt by the government to bolster its standing ahead of the elections. Pernando Barrena, who missed the Segura meeting because he was in Pamplona, claimed Mr Zapatero was pursuing "revenge" against Batasuna because the group had taken a "firm line" in peace talks last year. "It was an operation of punishment against those who tried to negotiate," he added.
Before Batasuna was banned in 2003, it represented about 15 per cent of the Basque people on local councils and in the regional government. Yesterday, police in San Sebastian also searched the headquarters of the Communist Party of the Basque Lands and Basque Nationalist Action. Both groups are suspected of being front organisations for Batasuna and have MPs in the Basque assembly. They walked out in protest at the Segura raid.
The government's move to enter into dialogue with Eta after decades of terror attacks has led to claims that it is soft on terrorism. Eta is accused of killing more than 800 people in its 40-year campaign to set up an independent Basque state in northern Spain and south-western France.
Peace talks faltered last autumn and were broken off after an Eta bomb attack on Madrid airport killed two people on New Year's Eve.
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