French and Spanish police seized the suspected leader of Basque rebels ETA in a joint raid on an apartment in the French city of Bordeaux, which the two countries hailed as a major blow against terrorism.
Police followed the girlfriend of Javier Lopez Pena, 49, to the apartment and detained him with three other members of the group, Spanish newspaper Publico reported.
About 30 French and Spanish police took part in the raid in Bordeaux at 11:30pm on Tuesday, French police said, adding that the four remained in custody in France yesterday.
As the four left the building in Bordeaux they yelled “Long live ETA! We’ll be victorious,” footage showed. The footage was filmed by Spanish public television TVE, which had a correspondent present during the raid.
A witness, Nicolas Teuchert, said he saw about 20 cars pull up outside the apartment block and police in masks, some carrying machine guns, entered the building in the center of the city.
Publico newspaper said that police had followed Pena’s girlfriend, Yolanda Molina, a lawyer for ETA suspects held in France, to the apartment.
The other three arrested were named as Ainhoa Zaeta Mendiondo, Igor Suberbiola and Jon Salaberria.
The arrest of Pena, also known as “Thierry,” is a major blow for ETA, which is blamed for the deaths of more than 820 people in its 40-year campaign for an independent Basque nation.
Pena is believed to have taken over the leadership of the separatists after the October 2004 arrest in France of previous leader Mikel Albizu.
Pena has been on the run since 1983. 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.
French Interior Minister Michele Alliot Marie expressed “immense satisfaction” at the arrests, calling the operation a success for French-Spanish intelligence and anti-terrorism cooperation.
ETA announced a “permanent ceasefire” in March 2006 but formally ended it last June citing frustration with the lack of concessions on the part of the government in their tentative peace process.
Pena is believed to have taken over ETA’s underground leadership from in 2006 when the group was holding peace talks with officials from the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
According to Spanish media he participated in the talks and was one of those who pushed to end the ceasefire.
Ainhoa Ozaeta is believed to be the masked woman who read the statement in the ETA video from last June officially announcing an end to the ceasefire.
Salaberria, a former regional lawmaker for ETA’s now-banned political wing Batasuna, has been on the run for financing the Basque separatist movement.
Suberbiola was a member of Basque independence youth movement close to ETA before going underground.
The arrests of the suspects follow two ETA car bomb attacks in less than one week.
Last Wednesday a blast outside a civil guard barracks in the Basque village of Legutiano killed one guard.
On Monday, a blast 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.