* Capture of ETA leader a body blow to struggling rebels
* Rebels face supporters’ calls to end armed struggle
* Government thinks they still plan violence
(Please note Basque leader’s name conforms with Basque spelling)
By Jason Webb
MADRID, March 1 (Reuters) - A pair of shackles found when the leader of Basque rebels ETA was captured has dimmed the prospect of his arrest bringing peace closer in the troubled Spanish region.
Sunday’s arrest in Normandy of Ibon Gogeaskoetxea, the fifth of ETA’s military leaders to be caught in less than two years, was a body blow to a group facing calls from its own supporters to end its half-century long war for Basque independence.
But the pistols, explosives and a pair of shackles found with Gogeaskoetxea and two accomplices did not indicate any sudden conversion to the cause of non-violence by ETA, which has killed more than 850 people since it was founded during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.
"It’s not usual to find shackles with ETA commandos," said Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba on Monday.
"One of our hypotheses .... is that they are planning to kidnap someone," Rubalcaba said.
A total of 32 ETA suspects have been arrested this year alone, the government says, and the rebels have not claimed a fatal victim since July, when a bomb killed two police officers on the island of Majorca.
Analysts believe the group’s failure to extract concessions from the government is combining with weariness of violence to demoralise its supporters, who want the mountainous, traditionally Basque lands of northern Spain and southwestern France to become independent.
The Basque Country already enjoys considerable political autonomy from Madrid and one of the leading members of ETA’s banned political wing Batasuna, Rufino Etxeberria, said earlier this month that the rebels had to stop killing.
ETA LOSING FACE?
Etxeberria and other members of Batasuna want to reenter legal politics in time for municipal elections in 2011. They are worried that separatism is losing ground in the Basque Country, where moderate nationalists lost control of the local government last year for the first time in decades.
"If today some of the members of Batasuna are daring to question ETA’s slogans, this is because police action has weakened the image of the band’s leaders," wrote Florencio Dominguez, one of the leading experts on ETA, in newspaper La Vanguardia.
But the extent of Batasuna’s sway over ETA is uncertain. The political wing was unable to prevent the failure of attempted peace talks with the Spanish government in 2006, which collapsed after the rebels killed two people with a car bomb at Madrid airport.
"Will ETA’s political wing be strong enough to win over those in favour of violence or will they continue to be dominated by ETA? That’s the great question," Carlos Barrera, a politics professor at the University of Navarre, told Reuters, adding that he was cautiously optimistic.
Perhaps 15 percent of Basques sympathise with Batasuna, and almost 40 percent support the moderate Basque Nationalist Party.
But the Spanish government says it will not talk to ETA’s political supporters until they definitively break with violence.
"They have only two options if they want to enter into democratic politics: either they convince ETA to abandon violence or they totally break with them," said Rubalcaba. (Reporting by Jason Webb; Editing by Charles Dick)