May 30, 2008 / 4:50 PM / 11 years ago

ETA rebels say arrests won't stop them fighting

MADRID, May 30 (Reuters) - ETA rebels said on Friday they would keep fighting for an independent Basque Country despite the arrest earlier this month of the man believed to be their leader.

In its first statement since the capture of Francisco Javier Lopez Pena in the French city of Bordeaux on May 20, ETA also claimed responsibility for killing a Spanish police officer by bombing a police barracks in northern Spain on May 14.

"If there is no adequate attention to the root of the problem, the conflict will persist," said ETA in a statement delivered to Basque newspaper Gara, in what was seen as a warning directed to the Spanish and French governments.

"They will be forcing us to keep on fighting," ETA said.

ETA has killed more than 800 people, mainly in Spain, in four decades of armed struggle for the independence of traditional Basque territories in northern Spain and southwestern France.

The Spanish government said Lopez Pena, who was arrested along with three other ETA suspects in Bordeaux, was the rebels’ top leader. In the communique, ETA referred to "persecution of ETA activists and leaders" in the French city.

The rebels also dismissed a proposal by the head of Spain’s Basque Country regional government, a moderate Basque nationalist, for a regional referendum to launch talks on ties with Madrid, calling it a "fraud".

Polls show most people in Spain’s Basque Country, which already enjoys considerable autonomy, do not want to split with Spain. There is less separatist sentiment in the French Basque region, where far fewer people still understand the ancient Basque language.

Spain’s security forces say ETA has been seriously weakened by hundreds of arrests in recent years but is still able to do damage. The rebels’ banned political wing, Batasuna, has attracted up to 15 percent of the vote in regional elections. (Reporting by Jason Webb, editing by Myra MacDonald)

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