BORDEAUX, France (AFP) — French and Spanish police have seized the suspected leader of the Basque separatist group ETA in a joint raid in France hailed by both countries Wednesday as a major blow against terrorism.
Javier Lopez Pena , 49, was detained along with three other suspected ETA members in a sweep on an apartment in the French city of Bordeaux just before midnight Tuesday, officials said.
Hailing the arrests as a breakthrough, Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Pena was "in all probability, the person with the most political and military weight" in ETA.
Known as "Thierry," Pena had been on the run since 1983 and is believed to have taken over the leadership of the separatists in 2006, after previous leader Mikel Albizu was arrested in France in October 2004.
The Spanish interior ministry considers him to be one of the masterminds of a December 2006 car bomb attack at Madrid airport that killed two people and ended an ETA ceasefire.
President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated police and other law enforcement officials for scoring "major successes" with the suspected ETA leader's arrest and a separate sweep on a network supporting Muslim radicals in Uzbekistan.
"France is firmly engaged in the struggle against all terrorist threats," the president said in a statement, praising the close cooperation with Spain to counter the "plans of the ETA terrorist organisation."
Taken into French custody overnight, the three men and one woman were brought back Wednesday to the Bordeaux apartment, where police were searching for evidence.
Two of the men and the woman kept their faces hidden from the press and shouted slogans in Basque -- "Long live ETA", "Love live the free Basque country" -- as they were led into the building.
The fourth, his face unmasked, told reporters in heavily accented French: "I denounce the situation in the Basque country."
Police discovered four handguns in the flat and two stolen cars parked nearby, officials said.
In addition to Pena, the three other suspects have been named as Ainhoa Zaeta Mendiondo, Igor Suberbiola and Jon Salaberria.
Rubalcaba, speaking from the Senegalese capital Dakar, said all were "important leaders of the terrorist group".
Salaberria, a former regional lawmaker for ETA's now-banned political wing Batasuna, has been accused of financing the Basque separatist movement.
Suberbiola was a member of a Basque independence youth movement close to ETA before going underground.
Ainhoa Ozaeta is believed to be the masked woman who read a statement in an ETA video last year that officially called off a permanent ceasefire announced in March 2006.
A Spanish judicial source said Madrid would ask for all four to be handed over to Spain for prosecution. A French judicial official said they were expected to be transferred to Paris in the coming days.
According to Spanish media, Pena pushed for ETA to formally call off the truce in June 2007 in frustration with a lack of progress in peace talks with the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
The Spanish interior minister said two others had been arrested in connection with the raid: a pro-independence former mayor from the Spanish Basque country, Jose Antonio Barandiaran, believed to have met recently with the Bordeaux suspects, and a French national linked to the rental of the flat.
The arrests follow two ETA car bomb attacks in less than a week.
Last Wednesday a blast outside a Civil Guard barracks in the Basque village of Legutiano killed one guard.
On Monday, an explosion damaged a yacht club in Getxo, an affluent suburb of the Basque economic capital Bilbao.
The car bomb attack came on the eve of a Tuesday meeting between Basque premier Juan Jose Ibarretxe and Zapatero, in which the Spanish leader once again rejected a Basque government sovereignty plan.
ETA, whose initials stand for Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language, is considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States.
It is blamed for the deaths of more than 820 people in its 40-year campaign for an independent Basque nation.
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