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French arrest suspected Eta military chief

Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

French police have arrested a man they believe to be the new military chief of Basque separatist group Eta, Alejandro Zobaran Arriola. He was arrested along with three other suspected Eta members in a hamlet in the countryside in north-east France.

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Spain has announced that two Eta leaders have been arrested.

French anti-terror police are awaiting the results of fingerprints to see if their man is really “Xarlas” – Arriola’s pseudonym in the underground organisation – and refused to comment officially Friday morning.

But sources have told various news outlets that the raid took place in Willencourt, a rural backwater which is home to 140 people in the Pas-de-Calais region, far from Eta’s usual stamping ground.

Residents are reported to have alerted the police after their suspicions were aroused by the arrival of a group claiming to be Spanish students at the end of February.

One of the group apparently tried unsuccessfully to escape, and handguns, fake identity papers, two stolen cars and computer equipment were seized.

Three of the arrested people are reported to be known to the Spanish police, two of them are the subjects of an international arrest warrant with one being accused of involvement in a shootout.

Spanish police believe that Arriola, who has been wanted internationally since 2007, to have taken the reins of Eta’s armed wing after last May’s arrest of Mikel Karrera Sarobe in the French Basque country.

They suspect him of organising two commando units – codenamed Donosti and Urederra – which targeted Spanish buildings, such as offices and banks. He is also accused of recruiting members for the armed group, according to Basque press agency Vasco Press .

Arriola apparently came to France in 2007 because he was suffering from “anxiety problems”. Since 2008 he is alleged to have led a cell which made explosives and stole motor vehicles.

Eta declared a ceasefire, which was greeted with official scepticism, last September. It is believed to have been weakened by numerous arrests and has not launched any attacks in Spain since August 2009.

The number two of the organisation's political wing, Mikel Albizu Iriarte (AKA “Antza”), was jailed for 20 years in France last December.

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