The suspected military chief of Basque Separatist Movement ETA was arrested by French police on Monday in the Hautes-Pyrenees region near the French-Spanish border.
Mikel Arikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, also known as ‘Txeroki’, is thought to have been behind attacks carried out by the Basque separatist group including the bombing of Madrid airport in December 2006 which ended a 14-month ceasefire.
A female suspect, Leire Lopez, was arrested at the same time as Aspiazu.
Eusakadi Ta Azktasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom, ETA) emerged under the military dictatorship of General Francisco Franco where the Basque culture and language were outlawed in the 1960s.
Over the past four decades, ETA has been linked to more than 820 violent deaths, including those of members of the Guardia Civil, the Spanish national police force, and politicians opposed to ETA demands.
Aspiazu, 35, was arrested by agents from the same unit as two Spanish Civil Guards in whose deaths he is thought to have been directly involved.
He will initially face charges in France and Madrid will then try him on 22 charges in Spanish courts before he serves any sentence in France.
Although Aspiazu, whose nickname means ‘Cherokee’, is not the leader of the separatist group he has been in charge of ETA’s military operations for a number of years.
He is also believed to be responsible for creating its cell-like structure.
Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Rubalcaba said:
“He was in charge of all of ETA’s units and ordered all their attacks.”
Aspiazu led what is referred to as a ‘new generation’ of ETA militants, who regard violence as the only way to achieve their objectives.
His arrest, according to Spanish Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is a ‘severe blow’ to the organisation.
However this statement runs along similar lines to that sent out after the arrest of Javier Lopez Pena in May.
Zapatero called him ‘in all probability, the person who carried the most weight within ETA’.
Aspiazu’s recent capture is the latest in a string of arrests of senior ETA suspects and is the most influential and important since that of Pena.
The arrests are thought to have reduced the numbers of the group to as few as 30 members, yet the deadly bombings remain a threat.
No one knows how big the covert operation really is, yet there is a growing feeling that ETA is out of touch with the Basque community and support is slowly diminishing.
Even so, the Spanish Prime Minister noted in light of the arrest that despite recent events ETA ‘has not lost its ability to attack all citizens; it has not lost its ability to cause pain’.
Undoubtedly this latest development will have weakened an apparently already declining organisation but it seems unlikely to initiate a change in their violent strategy.