CAPBRETON, France (Reuters) - ETA gunmen shot and killed a Spanish policeman and seriously wounded another in France on Saturday, the first killing by the Basque separatist group in almost a year.
The two plain-clothed Guardia Civil policemen had been taking part in a surveillance operation with French police in Capbreton, 20 km (12 miles) from the southern city of Biarritz, French police said.
Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said it appeared the policemen and ETA suspects were in the same cafeteria by chance and that after recognizing each other, the two policemen left the bar.
The suspects followed them outside, where witnesses said they heard shouts followed by shots, Rubalcaba said. The two were shot at point blank range, according to French police.
French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told a joint news conference with Rubalcaba that ETA had shot at police in France before, but the latest incident was “quite exceptional”.
“By all accounts, this is something that was done in cold blood and it’s the first time that that has happened,” she said.
The two victims were found in an unmarked French car in a supermarket car park in this small resort town early on Saturday. The wounded officer was rushed to hospital in critical condition.
Alliot-Marie said police were still hunting two men and a woman, who Spanish media said was their getaway driver.
A woman in her 30s was briefly taken hostage before being tied to a tree. She was able to free herself several hours later, police said.
The policeman’s death is the first ETA killing since it called off a 15-month-old ceasefire on June 5. That truce had effectively ended when ETA bombed Madrid airport on Dec 30 last year, killing two.
The shooting was ETA’s first fatal attack in France since 1976. It follows at least four attempted bombings in northern Spain since August that have been attributed to the group.
ETA has killed more than 800 people in four decades of armed struggle for independence for Basque territories in northern Spain and southern France. Security analysts say ETA has been seriously weakened by the arrest of hundreds of members in the last decade.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a news conference the policeman’s killers would be caught.
“The government will continue to hunt down the terrorists and those that aid them with every instrument of the law. They will win nothing they hope for with violence,” he said.
French anti-terrorist investigators are to launch a formal investigation into the shooting, the authorities said.
Spain’s ruling Socialists are under pressure over their policy towards ETA after peace talks with the group collapsed last year. The conservative Popular Party opposition is sure to focus on the issue during what is expected to be a hotly contested general election in March.
Rubalcaba and Alliot-Marie cut short a meeting of EU interior ministers near Potsdam, Germany, to visit the scene of the crime.
In Madrid, Spain’s Socialists cancelled rallies due to be held later on Saturday and Zapatero spoke with opposition leader Mariano Rajoy.
The French Basque country where the shooting occurred is a frequent bolt hole for ETA members hunted by Spanish police.
Polls show most inhabitants of Spain’s Basque Country, which already enjoys considerable autonomy, do not want full separation from Spain.
Additional reporting by Thierry Leveque and Jon Boyle in Paris, Emma Pinedo and Ben Harding in Madrid and Claudia Kade in Werder/Petzow; Writing by Ben Harding; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia