MADRID (AFP) — Hundreds of Basque separatists took the streets in protest Friday against the arrest a day earlier of almost the entire leadership of the banned political wing of armed seperatist group ETA.
The largest demonstration was held in Bilbao where roughly one thousand people marched through the streets of the Basque region's financial and cultural centre, the Europa Press news agency reported.
Several hundred more tooks part in marches in San Sebastian, a coastal city just across the border from France, and the Basque regional capital Vitoria.
"It is true that it hurts us, that we feel impotent and anger before so much injustice, torture and detentions," longtime Basque independence activist Tasio Erkizia told the crowd at the end of the march in Bilbao, the agency reported.
"But once again they are mistaken, they have been mistaken for years, they believe that they are going to put this people on its knees, but they are not going to do it neither with the carrot nor the stick," he added.
The interior ministry said 23 people were detained late Thursday as the banned party held a meeting in the Basque town of Segura
The operation confirmed the hard line against ETA by the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero since the armed group officially ended a 15-month-old ceasefire in June.
ETA has killed 819 people during almost four decades of fighting for the independence of Basque territories including parts of northern Spain and southwest France.
Both Batasuna and ETA are listed as terrorist organizations by the European Union and the US government.
The most senior Batasuna member still at liberty, Pernando Barrena, said Thursday's police operation was a "pre-election stand" by the government.
The Socialist Party "is looking to improve its position" against the conservative opposition Popular Party "before the next general elections in March," he told journalists outside a prison in San Sebastian where Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi has been held since June.
Zapatero is facing general elections in March 2008 in which the question of regional autonomy and the "Basque problem" are becoming major campaign themes.
Barrena, who was not present at Thursday's Batasuna meeting, also described the operation as "revenge" by the government for the "firm line" taken by the separatists during peace negotiations last year.
Minor acts of urban violence were reported overnight Thursday in Vitoria, where stones were thrown at banks and a travel agency and rubbish bins set on fire.
Batasuna has been banned as a party since 2003 for refusing to condemn violence and cut its links to ETA.
Top anti-terrorist judge Baltasar Garzon, who ordered Thursday's raid, suspected the meeting was aimed at transferring power to new leaders of the party which has been weakened by a recent arrests, a judicial source said.
The detained Batasuna members are expected to be transferred to Madrid, where they will be questioned by Garzon over the weekend, the judicial source said.
They face charges related to Garzon's investigation into links between Batasuna and ETA, especially the political party's suspected financing of ETA's activities, the source added.
Among those held was Joseba Permach, one of Batasuna's main spokesmen since Otegi's arrest in June for the crime of "glorifying terrorism."
The arrests follow the detention on Tuesday by Spanish police of Batasuna's international spokesman, Joseba Alvarez, and a member of the Basque prisoner support network Askatasuna, Oihana Agirre, in San Sebastian.
Earlier Friday Garzon ordered both men remanded in custody. The two are accused of organizing an unauthorized demonstration held on September 9 in San Sebastian in favour of Askatasuna.
"It is part of a ... tightening of the screw that has been observed since the (the end of) truce," one commentator, Basque journalist Gorka Landaburu, said of Thursday's crackdown.
"Things have changed toward Batasuna. During the peace process (the authorities) didn't intervene, now they intervene."
Zapatero broke off peace talks with ETA after the group broke a March 2006 ceasefire with the bombing of Madrid's airport last December, killing two people.
ETA resumed attacks in August with a car bomb outside a police barracks in the northern city of Durango that injured two officers.
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