French police on Monday announced the capture of Miguel De Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, alias "Txeroki" [Cherokee]. He is suspected of involvement in the December 2006 Madrid Airport bombing that killed two, and the December 2007 assassination of two Spanish police officers in southern France.
The arrest of one of Europe's "most wanted" terrorists was hailed as more proof of the success of cross-border cooperation against ETA by Spain and France. It comes after the arrest in May by French police of Javier Lopez Pena, then-leader of the ETA, as well as three other suspected members of the group.
ETA is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Europe. It has been fighting for 40 years for an independent Basque nation in northern Spain, and has killed more than 820 people.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais [this article is in Spanish] reported that "Txeroki" and a female suspected ETA member were apprehended at Cauterets, 30 kilometers from Lourdes, in the possession of weapons and false documents.
According to Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, two recently arrested suspects have identified Txeroki as the gunman.
One of the two suspected ETA members had said he "heard Txeroki acknowledge that he was the assassin of the two policemen," the minister alleged.
The two plain-clothed officers, Raul Centeno, 24, and Fernando Trapero, 23, had been taking part in surveillance with French police in southwestern France when they were shot outside a cafe.
France's Le Nouvel Observateur [this article is in French] noted that ETA had claimed responsibility for those murders and released a statement saying it was willing to strike Spanish security forces at any time or place.
The Times (of London) reported that "Txeroki" was believed responsible in large part for derailing the peace process between the Spanish government and ETA. The group ended a 15-month "cease-fire" in June 2007.
Spanish police believe Txeroki, a hardliner who is believed to have taken over Eta's military operations in late 2003, has been connected to all the major Eta operations in the last five years.
In particular, he has been linked to the Madrid airport bomb attack that killed two people in December, 2006 and which led the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to end its controversial dialogue with Eta.
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.
But the group remains a threat nonetheless. AFP reported that Spanish prosecutors on Friday said they were seeking the arrest of five ETA militants suspected of cooperating with Colombia's FARC rebels on a plan to assassinate senior Colombian figures in Europe.
Their objective was to perpetrate attacks in Spain and elsewhere in Europe against high-profile Colombian figures targeted by FARC, a Marxist rebel group seeking the overthrow of the Colombian government.
Targets included former Colombian president Andres Pastrana, Noemi Sanin – Bogota's ambassador to Madrid between 2002 and 2008 – current Vice-President Francisco Santos, and former Bogota mayor Antans Mockus.
A Spanish justice official said the two groups had collaborated on "the setting-up in Colombia between July and mid-August 2003 of training in explosives handling" in which at least four Basque separatists participated.
On Nov. 5, ETA publicly vowed to continue its armed struggle, and claimed responsibility for 10 recent attacks – including a car bombing the previous week at a Pamplona university campus that wounded 17.
Still, experts believe the group has been crippled by the recent, joint Spanish-French campaign against them, AFP reported.
Security analysts say ETA has been seriously weakened by the arrest of hundreds of members and their supporters over the last decade.
[Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez] Zapatero has repeatedly ruled out any further talks with the group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States.
"ETA will grow weaker and weaker with a loss of social backing from this Basque nationalist segment that is always key. It will be a step-by-step end," he said in an interview published in August in daily newspaper El Mundo.