Vast police operation nets suspected ETA leader
By The Associated Press

BAYONNE, France (AP) - Two of Spain's most wanted alleged terrorists and at least 16 other suspected members of the armed Basque separatist group ETA were captured Sunday in a vast French-Spanish police operation, authorities said.
Mikel Albizu Iriarte, the suspected top leader of ETA's political wing since 1993, and his partner Soledad Iparraguirre were arrested near Pau in southwestern France, French investigators and Spanish authorities said.

France's government described the arrests as a turning point in the fight against the armed group that since the 1960s has carried out bombings and assassinations in Spain for an independent Basque state.

"It is a fine victory," said Justice Minister Dominique Perben on Europe-1 radio. He said the raids, which involved some 140 officers, also turned up bomb-making equipment.

Spanish Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said French police seized hundreds of kilos (pounds) of explosives and dozens of weapons, including assault rifles and grenade launchers.

"It's an operation of extreme importance that can be described as historic," Alonso said. But he did not declare the battle against ETA over.

"Despite the fact that it is a big blow, the security forces are on high alert," he said. "We must not drop our guard."

Mikel Albizu and Iparraguirre, both aged 43, had been on the run since 1993.

They were with their daughter when they were arrested, police said. They had false papers and refused to answer questions but were identified by police agents and, Spain said, by their fingerprints.

ETA militants have long crossed into peaceful Basque provinces of southwest France to take refuge or make plans. French and Spanish authorities closely cooperate to hunt them down. ETA is classified as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States. It has claimed or has been blamed for more than 800 deaths.

Mikel Albizu, who uses the alias Mikel Antza, is thought to have taken over as a top leader after police devastated ETA in 1992 by arresting most of its senior members.

He has not been accused of having participated in attacks but was allegedly part of the group's so-called executive committee and made the group's decisions together with Ignacio Gracia Arregui, a former leader of ETA's military wing arrested in September 2000 in France.

Albizu had escaped another police raid last April that netted an ETA logistics chief, Feliz Ignacio Esparza.

"ETA is decapitated," Jean Chalvidant, author of "ETA, the investigation," told France-Info radio. "It is an enormous coup because he is the boss of ETA."

"He knows nearly all of the members of the movement. It is him who says 'yes' or 'no' to young candidates who want to join ETA. It is him who commands the armed cells," Chalvidant said.

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