PARIS, November 17 – French police seized the accused military chief of ETA in a pre-dawn raid Monday, officials said, capturing the most wanted Basque militant still at large only six months after holding the separatist group’s presumed leader.
Miguel De Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, 35, alias "Txeroki" , was caught in a raid in Cauterets, a spa town and ski resort in the French Pyrenees, near the border with Spain and its autonomous Basque region, which ETA wants to see win independence.
French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Txeroki stands accused of killing two Spanish undercover officers shot dead in France in December last year.
Txeroki’s arrest is the most serious blow against the ETA movement since its presumed leader Javier Lopez Pena was arrested in May.
A handgun, false papers and a computer were seized in the raid, and a woman suspected of also belonging to ETA was arrested, according to a French official familiar with the investigation.
Both suspects are to be transferred to custody in the southern French town of Bayonne, he added.
The net had been closing on Txeroki, who has led ETA’s military wing since 2003 and is reputed to be one of the movement’s hardliners, since the killing of the Guardia Civil officers last year.
The two plain-clothed officers, Raul Centeno, 24, and Fernando Trapero, 23, had been taking part in surveillance with French police in southwestern France when they were shot outside a cafe.
Press reports at the time said the two men had been part of a unit that was in the "final phase" of an operation to catch Txeroki.
French police detained two suspected members of an ETA commando believed to have taken part in the attack several days later in the southern Lozere region while a third suspect remained at large.
According to Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, two recently arrested suspects have identified Txeroki as the gunman.
One of the two suspected ETA members had said he "heard Txeroki acknowledge that he was the assassin of the two policemen," the minister alleged.
Some Spanish media had already alleged that the third person who took part in the shooting was Txeroki.
ETA, which has killed more than 820 people in its 40-year campaign for an independent Basque homeland, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement issued two weeks later.
France, once a safe haven for Basque militants, has arrested a number of ETA suspects since the group called off a 15-month-old ceasefire in June 2007, shattering hopes of a peace settlement.
According to Spanish press reports, Txeroki was one of the ETA members most opposed to peace talks with the Madrid government.
In particular, he is said to have ordered the December 30, 2006 bombing of a Madrid airport car park that killed two people and sounded the death knell for negotiations.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the arrest of one of Europe’s most hunted men "demonstrates the excellent collaboration between France and Spain in the struggle against Basque terrorism".
Alliot-Marie said: "The arrest demonstrates once again the resolute engagement of French police and gendarmes to combat all forms of terrorism."
In May this year, 49-year-old Javier Lopez Pena, ETA’s alleged commander, was arrested in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux.