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Fresh blow for ETA as French police arrest military leader

Four terrorist suspects detained during meeting near border with Belgium

Spanish authorities are convinced that French police dealt a major blow to ETA's military apparatus when it arrested four suspected members of the Basque terrorist group during a secret meeting held to organize the creation of new commando groups, sources say.

Police raided a country house between Amiens and Lille, near the border with Belgium, at around 9pm Thursday night following days of surveillance by French authorities. One of the suspects is Alejandro Zobarán, 29, alias Xarla, considered ETA's top military chief. The four were armed with pistols, officers said.

The other three suspects were identified as Mikel Oroz Torrea, 31, alias Peru, Iban Saez de Jáuregui and Urko Lavaca Larrea. Oroz is ETA's number two military chief, responsible for explosives.

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Thursday's bust comes at a crucial time for ETA, which last September announced a "halt in attacks" in a bid to join the democratic process. The Basque terrorist group is divided between hardliners who want to continue the armed struggle and those who want to renounce violence and work for a peaceful solution for Basque independence.

Interior Ministry officials say that Zobarán became ETA's military chief after last year's arrest of Mikel Kabikoitz Carrera Sarobe, alias Ata. The High Court on Tuesday charged Carrera along with Francisco Javier López Peña, known as Thierry, with having connections with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Over the past three years, Spanish and French authorities working jointly have dealt serious blows to ETA's military apparatus, arresting five of its leaders.

When asked at a news conference if the recent arrests meant the hardliners were now all in custody, Government spokesman Ramón Jáuregui dodged the question. Instead he praised French-Spanish cooperation in the fight against ETA, saying "these arrests weaken ETA even more and bring us closer to the end of the violence."

Oroz, whose whereabouts for the past two years had been unknown, was considered to be Zobarán's successor. According to authorities, the Pamplona native was for many years involved in Basque street violence and fled to France after suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of jumping from one commando unit to another. He is believed to have been an inactive member since leaving Spain.

But Oroz began to rise through the ranks in recent years after authorities began arresting the group's military leaders and became responsible for obtaining and distributing explosives.

Iban Saez had been one of the government's five most wanted ETA fugitives since 2009. He jumped bail following his arrest in 2001 for being part of a terrorist cell in Barcelona. Larrea fled to France last year after the High Court ordered his arrest along with 17 others for participating in an ETA youth group Segi.

Left: Xarla, suspected of being ETA's military chief. Right: Iban Saez.
Left: Xarla, suspected of being ETA's military chief. Right: Iban Saez.
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