Spain welcomes end of safe haven for Basque terrorists in France

Recent raids by French police of Basque sanctuaries near the Spanish border have served notice that France no longer will be the unofficial haven for these terrorists. The raids may be the biggest blow ever against the Basque separatist organization, ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty), which seeks automony from Spain.

In the last three weeks, French police arrested one of ETA's top leaders - Santiago Arrospide Sarasola, alias ``Santi Potros'' - in a small town near the Spanish border and followed up with a massive raid, detaining 67 Basque residents allegedly linked to ETA.

Spanish police also acted on information found on ``Santi Potros'' and rounded up close to 30 people on this side of the border. The arrests continued two weeks ago with the capture of two more top ETA members by the French - one, allegedly the ETA's expert on explosives.

As a result, many Spaniards jubilantly have proclaimed the end to the safe haven enjoyed by ETA across the border.

Since coming to power last year, the new conservative French government has turned over to Spain 130 Basque residents linked to ETA under a July 1986 measure of ``absolute urgency'' which allows France to bypass extradition procedures. After years of France's aloofness to what it had called a strictly ``Spanish problem,'' Spain eagerly welcomed the sudden surge in collaboration.

But recently Spanish officials have grumbled that only minor activists were being handed over. More than a third of those expelled to Spain have been let off without charges.

Pressure mounted on French authorities to hand over ETA ringleaders - many of whom enjoy the status of political refugees - after a bomb blast last June in a Barcelona supermarket killed 21 people.

But France traditionally has been a land of asylum, and the Basques still are viewed by sectors of the French left as involved in the fight against Spain's former fascist dictatorship.

The French socialists and President Francois Mitterrand himself, in a meeting with Premier Felipe Gonz'alez last August, expressed reservations about bypassing extradition procedures and simply handing over suspects. Mr. Mitterrand remained somewhat aloof by saying that Spain should be open to dialogue with ETA. Mr. Gonz'alez then made an offer for a dialogue.

But in a hard-line message published in the radical Basque paper Egin, ETA rejected the offer. Some observers interpreted ETA's refusal as a go-ahead for the French to step up police action. A few weeks later, ETA leader ``Santi Potros'' was captured.

Yet despite official satisfaction, the effectiveness of the French police action is being questioned. Following a massive raid involving 2,000 French police in which nearly 100 people were arrested, only seven were charged. For some, the crackdown is seen as simply a show of strength before French elections next spring.

Police action is expected to continue. With the murder of a French gendarme by French Basque separatist leader Philippe Bidart, French authorities are determined to squelch any incipient terrorist violence in France. As the manhunt for Mr. Bidart and other members of the French Iparretarak (People of the North) goes on, ETA members are likely to continue to be harassed.

Ironically, ETA owes much of its present quandary to the increased activity of the French group. ETA had managed to limit Iparretarak's activity until recently by stressing the need for Basques to have a safe haven in France.

With all the police action, Spain may have strengthened its hand in its bid to open a dialogue with a badly hit ETA.

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