French police have arrested a top leader of the Basque separatist group ETA in eastern France, the Spanish interior ministry says.
Izaskun Lesaka, the “most experienced of the three main leaders” of the banned organisation, was arrested during a raid by an elite French police unit at a hotel in the town of Macon, near the city of Lyon, a ministry statement said on Sunday.
She was arrested with a man, also described as an ETA member, who the statement and a French source identified as Joseba Iturbide. Both of them were allegedly in possession of weapons.
Lesaka had been on the run since 2005 and was sentenced in absentia to seven years in France in January over her involvement in ETA.
According to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Lesaka was running the group’s military arm.
Searches at the hotel in Macon continued on Sunday afternoon, as the roads leading to it were blocked off by unmarked police cars.
The arrests were a new blow to the Basque separatist organisation, which announced a year ago that it had abandoned violence in its 40-year fight for an independent state in northern Spain and southwestern France.
ETA is considered a terrorist organisation by Spain, the US and the European Union. It is blamed for the killings of more than 825 people in a campaign of bombings and shootings.
While vowing to abandon violence, ETA has refused to disband and disarm, though it has only dozens of active members left.
Earlier this month, Basque nationalist parties won regional elections, a result expected to fuel calls for independence.
One of the groups that did well, the Euskal Herria Bildu coalition, represents the political ambitions of those who in the past supported ETA.
Radical pro-independence Basque groups condemned the arrests, which take to 24 the number of ETA members arrested, 16 in France alone.
“It is totally incomprehensible that a year after [ETA’s announcement that it was abandoning armed struggle] they continue to make political arrests,” said a statement by the Basque group Left Abertzale.
France will continue to hunt down ETA members as long as the group refuses to disarm, the French interior
minister said following the arrest.
“ETA cannot expect any change, we will remain engaged in the fight against terrorism,” Manuel Valls said in an interview published in the Spanish daily El Pais.
“As long as the ETA does not decide to disarm we will continue to fight [it] with uttermost determination,” he said.
Before last year’s truce announcement, the group declared what it called a permanent ceasefire in 2006. But negotiations with the government went nowhere and ETA set off a car bomb at Madrid’s airport later that year, killing two people.
The French interior ministry said Lesaka was one of three hooded ETA members present at the announcement of the October 2011 ceasefire, while Iturbide was linked to the commando unit that set off the airport car bomb.