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Suspected ETA military chief arrested in France

MADRID (Reuters) - French police have arrested the suspected leader of Basque separatist rebels ETA, believed to be behind attacks including the bombing of Madrid airport in 2006, the Spanish and French governments said Monday.

Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, known by his alias “Txeroki” or “Cherokee” and Spain’s most wanted man, was arrested along with female ETA suspect Leire Lopez at 3.30 a.m. (0230 GMT) in a flat in Cauterets, in France’s mountainous Pyrenean region near the Spanish border.

It was the latest in a series of captures of senior ETA figures and appeared to be the biggest blow to the organization since May, when ETA’s top commander Francisco Javier Lopez Pena was arrested in the French city of Bordeaux.

“Today ETA is weaker and Spanish democracy is stronger. ETA has not lost its capacity to attack, it hasn’t lost its capacity to hurt, but it has been dealt a hard blow,” Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a news conference in Madrid.

Aspiazu, 35, will face charges in France for direct involvement in the killing of two Spanish civil guard police in the French seaside town of Capbreton in December 2007, said Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Rubalcaba, who added that he had been captured by agents from the same unit as the dead men.

“What better homage to fallen comrades than to catch the man who killed them,” Rubalcaba told a news conference, adding that Aspiazu had been traced after police identified false license plates on his stolen Peugeot car.

Spanish authorities believe Aspiazu ordered the car bombing at Madrid airport in December 2006 which killed two people and wrecked peace talks with the Spanish government.

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“He was in charge of all of ETA’s units and ordered all their attacks,” Rubalcaba said.

While Aspiazu faces a possible French prison sentence, Madrid will also ask that he be sent for trial in Spain on 22 charges before returning him to serve out jail time in France, Rubalcaba said.

Aspiazu, whose Spanish police photo shows a tough-looking man with a thin beard and a mullet hairstyle, has been in charge of ETA’s military operations for several years, during which time the group has staged dozens of attacks, security services believe.

He is also suspected of involvement in a failed plot to assassinate King Juan Carlos in Majorca in 2004, Spanish media reported.

“Having a man with Txeroki’s record in police hands is going to save lives,” Zapatero said.

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the arrest.

“This arrest shows once again the strong commitment of the French police and gendarmerie and the excellent cooperation between France and Spain in the fight against Basque terrorism,” he said in a statement.

Several ETA suspects have been arrested in recent years and Spanish authorities say the group has been reduced to a relatively small number of fighters. But it has continued to carry out regular bombings.

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ETA began its violent campaign for the independence of the Basque Country in northern Spain in the late years of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in the 1960s, and has killed more than 800 people in four decades.

With the Basque language receiving state support and the region enjoying considerable autonomy over areas including education and health, ETA has become increasingly isolated.

Polls indicate most Basques do not want independence and there have been media reports of disagreements between ETA and its outlawed political wing Batasuna.

French police arrested Aspiazu in the apartment he had been renting since last week in the spa town of Cauterets. They found a pistol, a computer and fraudulent French and Spanish identity documents, as well as a wig. He made no comment during his arrest.

The two policemen he is suspected of killing were in France to keep him under surveillance in a joint operation between French and Spanish police. They were shot in their car in the parking lot of a shopping center when they encountered a group of three suspected ETA members.

Two of the suspects, Asier Bengoa Lopez de Armentia and Soaia Sanchez Iturregi were arrested and charged days later.

In a separate development, authorities in Northern Ireland Monday arrested Basque separatist militant Inaki de Juana Chaos, who spent more than two decades in jail in Spain for crimes including 25 killings.

He was freed in August, but Spain issued an international arrest warrant for him after he failed to appear in court to testify in a case in which he was accused of praising terrorism.

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer, Elizabeth Pineau and Clement Dossin in Paris, Claude Canellas in Bordeaux, and Emma Pinedo in Madrid, editing by Mark Trevelyan