Spanish authorities arrest Basque separatists

AGENCIES , MADRID

Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 6

Determined to show their resolve toward radical Basque nationalists ahead of general elections in March, the Spanish authorities have arrested 23 top members of Batasuna, the outlawed political wing of the armed separatist group ETA.

Police officers detained the leaders of Batasuna on Thursday night as they left a secret meeting in Segura, in the Basque region of northern Spain, an Interior Ministry official and a member of Batasuna said. Television images showed hooded police officers and plainclothes officials taking handcuffed members of Batasuna to unmarked cars.

Baltasar Garzon, a high-profile anti-terrorism judge, ordered the arrests, spokeswomen for the National Court and for the police said on Friday.

The party leaders were accused of holding an illegal political meeting. Jone Goirizelaia, a lawyer for Batasuna, said they were being held incommunicado and she would learn the charges against each today.

The arrests are likely to bolster the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero among voters looking for a strong stance against violent Basque separatists.

"Zapatero needs to appear as hard as the right is," Jonan Fernandez, a former member of Batasuna who now runs Baketik, a peace institute based in the Basque region, said by telephone.

"The people who will pay for this are the Basques," he said, lamenting the likelihood that progress toward ending four decades of violence would suffer.

Zapatero was criticized after ETA bombed the Madrid airport in December, killing two people and shattering a peace effort that he had praised less than 24 hours earlier. ETA insisted then that its nine-month-old cease-fire was intact, but in June declared it over.

Since then, the judiciary and the police have clamped down on ETA, considered a terrorist organization by the State Department and the EU.

Among those taken on Thursday was Joseba Permach, who has been Batasuna's main spokesman. The only spokesman for the party not now in police custody, Pernando Barrena, described the actions as "revenge" by the government after the peace process broke down following ETA's attack on Madrid airport last December that killed two people.

Posters calling for demonstrations appeared in Basque villages last night. The Basque newspaper Gara called the arrests "a declaration of war."

The government defended the raid, saying that the judiciary was independent and free to carry out any operations it considered necessary. It is not yet clear what charges those arrested will face.

The justice minister of the Basque regional government, Joseba Azkarraga, described the arrests as "political opportunism", adding that it seemed "very suspicious" that the raid had been carried out with elections set for next spring.