New victories against Spain's ETA separatists

A series of arrests may help Spain's prime minister answer critics of his policies on ETA.

In the end, it may have been sheer luck that brought down one of the most wanted members of ETA.

Juan Cruz Maiza Artola, whom police suspect is head of logistics for the Basque separatist group, was arrested on Thursday after an investigation sparked by the suspicions of his French landlord – who happened to be a police officer.

Mr. Maiza's arrest, along with two of his cohorts, brings to 18 the number of ETA members arrested since June 5. That's when the outlawed group ended the cease-fire it had initiated with the Spanish government that it had initiated 15 months earlier. Four supporters of the group have also been arrested for low-level street violence.

Florencio Domínguez, editor-in-chief of the Bilbao-based Vasco Press news agency, chalks up the police's recent success against ETA to "luck, good counterterrorism and intelligence work, and the establishment of preventative teams who routinely conduct searches at bus and train stations." Spanish security forces have been on maximum alert since the cease-fire ended.

The wave of arrests – along with the disruption of several planned attacks – may simply be good police work by French and Spanish counterterrorism forces, who have been working more closely in recent years.

But with general elections approaching in March 2008, some analysts say the crackdown is an attempt by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to counter criticism from his opposition that he is weak on terrorism. During the cease-fire, critics claimed that the government had eased police pressure on ETA, an accusation that Mr. Zapatero's administration has denied.

The recent arrests suggest that now, at least, the government is pursuing the group with renewed vigor. The law enforcement maneuvers come amid several measures by Zapatero's government to rein in what some observers describe as a newly emboldened ETA (the initials stand for "Basque Homeland and Freedom").

The day after ETA abandoned the cease-fire in June, the Interior Ministry returned Iñaki de Juana Chaos, a convicted ETA member, to prison. In a controversial move, the Zapatero government had commuted Mr. de Juana's sentence to house arrest after his hunger strike brought him close to death in March. Two days later, the national court had Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the illegal Batasuna – widely seen as ETA's political arm – sent to prison for "promoting terrorism" at a 2003 memorial service for a deceased ETA member.

Zapatero's crackdown comes as the opposition Popular Party (PP) continues its increasingly vitriolic critique of the prime minister's policies toward the Basque separatists. During the State of the Nation debate earlier this month, PP leader Mariano Rajoy repeatedly accused Zapatero of "betraying" the country by negotiating with terrorists.

Polls have shown the PP closing the gap with Zapatero's Socialists. The prime minister may feel pressure to demonstrate a tough stance on terrorism, experts say.

"[The government] is doing it to avoid losing votes," says Igor Ahedo, political science professor at the University of the Basque Country, of Zapatero's aggressive approach. "But as a strategy, it's only going to help the PP. In Spain there's a saying: 'Why go with the copy when you can have the original?' "

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