French police arrested Mikel Irastorza, the head of armed Basque terror group ETA, in south-western France on Saturday in a joint operation with their Spanish counterparts.
Irastorza, 41, was detained in a house in Ascain, a village in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, using information obtained by the Spanish Civil Guard, the Spanish Interior Ministry said in a statement.
The authorities say Irastorza has no prior experience with terrorism
Irastorza took over the leadership of the illegal organization seven years ago after he went on the run. He is believed to have been in France for three years.
He was reportedly tasked with logistics and responsible for collecting weapons to be handed over as part of a hypothetical negotiation with the Spanish government. ETA declared a permanent ceasefire in 2011.
A Spanish man and a French woman were also arrested, the ministry said, for giving shelter to Irastorza and letting him stay in the house where he was arrested.
“The arrest is a crushing blow to ETA, removing its leadership and eliminating the part that controlled arms and explosives,” said the ministry, adding that the operation remained open.
ETA killed more than 800 people during its four-decade terror campaign to establish an independent Basque state in northern Spain and southern France.
ETA killed 850 people during its four-decade terror campaign
After a sustained police and judicial campaign that crippled ETA’s ability to operate, with hundreds of its members arrested, satellite organizations banned, and some of its weapons seized, the organization called a unilateral ceasefire in 2011, agreeing to turn in its weapons, although a full handover has yet to take place. An arms cache was found in woodland north of Paris on October 12.
The arrest last year of Iratxe Sorzábal and David Pla, along with Iñaki Reta Frutos and Xavier Goyenetxea this year, left Irastorza alone at the head of ETA. He was previously a spokesman for a platform set up by pro-independence parties. The authorities say he has never been involved in terrorism.
Speaking on Sunday, Arnaldo Otegi, the leader of the Basque Country’s pro-independence left, known as the abertzale, described Irastorza’s arrest as “part of the logic of war waged by the French and Spanish states,” adding: “If they continue with that logic, we’re not going to swerve from our path. It will only confirm our belief in building peace.”
Otegi served a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for trying to reconstruct Batasuna, the party banned as the political wing of ETA.
The Basque Country held regional elections in September in which Otegi was banned from running as a candidate for EH Bildu, the heir to Batasuna. The Basque radical left is locked in an internal debate as it attempts to tackle the rise of emerging anti-austerity group Podemos in the region.
Voters re-elected Iñigo Urkullu, whose moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) secured 29 seats. The Basque Socialists managed only nine seats, as did the Popular Party. EH Bildu won 17 seats and Podemos, 11.
English version by Nick Lyne.