PARIS (AP) - French police arrested the suspected military chief
and "No. 1 member" of ETA on Monday - a new blow to the banned
Basque militant group just weeks after his alleged predecessor was
caught, officials said.
Trailed by police, the man identified only as "Balak" and two alleged accomplices - all armed - were detained on a street in the southwestern French village of Gerde shortly after nightfall, a French police official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
In a statement, French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said "Balak" appeared to be the new head of ETA's military arm, assuming control after Mikel de Garikoitz Aspiazu, alias Txeroki, was arrested on Nov. 17.
In Spain, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said the arrests Monday followed a joint French-Spanish police operation. He identified the suspect the French authorities called "Balak" as Aitzol Iriondo.
"Aitzol Iriondo is presumably Txeroki's substitute," Rubalcaba told reporters in Madrid. "And as such we're talking about the military chief and No. 1 member of the terrorist group ETA."
It was not immediately clear why there was an apparent discrepancy between the different names put forward by French and Spanish officials. Rubalcaba said authorities were working to identify the two other suspects.
Investigators believe Iriondo was one of three ETA members who participated in the fatal shooting of two Spanish civil guard officers in the southern French town of Capbreton last December, Rubalcaba said.
Police investigators were still trying to work out whether Iriondo or Aspiazu was the triggerman for the killing of the two Spanish civil guards, Rubalcaba said.
ETA, whose initials stand for Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language, has killed over 825 people since 1968 in a campaign for a homeland carved from areas of northeast Spain and southwest France.
Rubalcaba was clearly emboldened by the recent arrests.
"I don't know if any terrorist is at this moment thinking about substituting Iriondo, but we can guarantee you that as we talk we're looking for that person," he said. "And it will go on like this until this finishes."
Associated Press Writer Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain,
contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)