Spanish and French police arrested the reputed leader of the armed Basque separatist group ETA and five other people, hitting back amid a sustained campaign of bombings by the militant organization, officials said Wednesday.
Francisco Javier Lopez Pena and three other alleged ETA members were detained in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux on Tuesday night, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said.
Two more people were arrested Wednesday, one in Spain and a French citizen in France who was linked to the Bordeaux apartment, he said. French police said handguns and materials that could be used for making bombs were found in the apartment.
"This is not just another police operation in the sense that one of the detained, Francisco Javier Lopez Pena, is in all likelihood at this moment the person with most political and military weight in the terrorist group ETA," Rubalcaba said from Senegal, where he was on an official visit.
The minister was to cut short that visit and fly back to Madrid — evidence of how seriously Spain's takes the first arrest of a reputed ETA chief since 2004.
Two dozen attacks since December
Since ETA ended a cease-fire in December 2006, Spanish and French police have arrested dozens of alleged members of the organization.
The latest arrests came amid a renewed campaign of attacks by ETA. The group was blamed for killing a policeman in a massive car bombing last week in a Basque village. It claimed another car bombing Sunday near Bilbao — the latest in more than 20 attacks by the organization since it called off the cease-fire after peace talks with the government failed.
Lopez Pena was instrumental in ETA's decision to end the truce, said a Spanish police official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
ETA is blamed for killing more than 825 people since the late 1960s in its campaign for an independent Basque state in territory straddling northern Spain and southern France.
The latest attacks are seen as an attempt by ETA to show it remains a force to be reckoned with and will not be ignored as politicians discuss how to end the region's decades-old conflict.
Besides Lopez Pena, the other three suspected ETA members arrested in Bordeaux were identified as Ainhoa Ozaeta Mendiondo, Igor Suberbiola and Jon Salaberria. A fifth person, Jose Antonio Barandiaran, a former mayor of a Basque town, was arrested in Spain's northern Basque region Wednesday morning. The French citizen arrested in Bordeaux was not immediately identified.
Potential bombmaking tools seized
A French police official said four handguns, false identity papers, computers and material that could be used for making explosives — including sodium chlorate and time-bomb equipment — were seized in the Bordeaux apartment.
The official was not authorized to be named publicly.
The suspects have not made any statements since their arrest, the official said.
The office of French Prime Minister Francois Fillon confirmed the arrests in a statement, calling Lopez Pena "one of the historic leaders" of ETA and saying he had been wanted by police for 20 years.
"The success of this operation illustrates again the remarkable quality of the anti-terrorist cooperation between France and Spain," the statement said.
The apartment where the suspects were seized was blocked off by French and Spanish police Wednesday morning. It is located on a busy boulevard in a working class district of the city.
Many ETA members live in French Basque areas in the southwest of the country. The group is considered a terrorist organization by Spain, the European Union and the United States.