MADRID (AFP) — Spanish police dismantled Tuesday the most active cell of the armed Basque separatist group ETA with the detention of nine suspected members of the group, the government said.
"We can't say this is the only ETA unit but it was the most active, most dynamic and of course the most wanted one," Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told a news conference.
Among those captured was Arkaitz Goikoetxea, the leader of the "Vizcaya" cell which the Spanish authorities suspect was behind most of the attacks carried out by ETA since it called off a ceasefire in June 2007, he said.
Two people were arrested outside the Basque region. One was detained in the northwestern province of Galicia and another in the province of Malaga on Spain's southern Mediterranean coast.
Rubalcaba said the "Vizcaya" unit was suspected of the deadly car bombing of a police barracks in the Basque town of Legutiano in May as well as attacks on police barracks in Durango and courthouse buildings in Getxo.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero congratulated Rubalcaba and the security forces for "an outstanding demonstration of efficiency."
ETA, whose symbol is a snake wrapped around an axe, is blamed for the deaths of 823 people in its 40-year campaign of bombings and shootings to carve a Basque homeland out of northern Spain and southwestern France.
The latest police operation is seen as the biggest blow against ETA since the group's presumed leader, Javier Lopez Pena, was detained along with three other suspected members of the group in France in May.
Florencio Dominguez, an ETA expert and the editor-in-chief of Basque news agency Vasco Press, estimated the "Vizcaya" unit had been behind 80 to 90 percent of the outfit's attacks since it resumed its armed campaign.
"This operation deprives ETA of one of its main tools," he told AFP.
Police are looking into the possibility that the unit was responsible for the bombs that exploded at two seaside resorts on Sunday in the northern province of Cantabria following a warning call from ETA, Rubalcaba said.
The explosions in Laredo and Noja caused light material damage and slightly injured a woman who was struck by a rock that was sent flying by one of the blasts. A pregnant woman was also treated for shock.
The authorities seized four guns as part of their operation, including two found inside a rucksack belonging to Goikoetxea.
Police also found maps of Andalusia and its Costa del Sol -- a prime vacation spot for British tourists -- as well as of the Portuguese capital Lisbon, inside Goikoetxea's bag, a National Court source told AFP.
Goikoetxea, who is missing three fingers in his right hand as a result of an accident he suffered while handling a Molotov cocktail, also had three fake police identity badges and an electric detonator in his possession.
He had a beard and was in the company of two women when he was arrested at an apartment in Bilbao, the court source said.
ETA declared a "permanent" ceasefire in March 2006, raising hopes for an end to the violence.
But an ETA bombing at Madrid's airport in December 2006 that killed two men put an end to tentative peace talks with the government.
Spain's socialist government has adopted a hardline against ETA since the group lifted the ceasefire, arresting dozens of its members and suspending two pro-ETA nationalist political parties through legal action.
Rubalcaba said police had arrested 306 suspected members of ETA and their supporters since January 2007.
"The time between an ETA member placing a bomb and being jailed is getting shorter and shorter," he said
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.
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