Suspected ETA Leader Arrested in France

French police arrested the suspected top leader of the Basque guerrilla group ETA today, dealing a major blow to the separatists who have waged an escalating campaign of violence, Spanish officials said.

Officials said Ignacio Gracia Arregui, 45, who goes under the code name Inaki of Renteria, was taken into custody in an apartment in the town of Bidart in the French Basque region, in an operation assisted by Spanish authorities.

“I can confirm the news of the arrest by French police of Inaki of Renteria, who is considered ETA’s number one, according to the group’s presumed organizational chart,” Spanish Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja told reporters.

Gracia Arregui, Spain’s most-wanted ETA fugitive, was alleged to have given the orders for a failed 1995 attempt on the life of Spain’s King Juan Carlos.

He was seized just two days after Spanish police arrested 20 people accused of belonging to ETA’s political hierarchy.

Those raids were followed by an assassination attempt Thursday night against a retired Basque Socialist politician, who was shot in the face but survived.

ETA has been linked to 12 killings in Spain this year since calling off a 14-month-long cease-fire last December.

Its summer offensive of bombings and assassinations has been the bloodiest in a decade, raising questions about the effectiveness of Spanish security forces against the guerrillas.

Praise for Security Forces

But Mayor Oreja today said the latest arrests proved that Spanish police, in cooperation with French authorities, were capable of striking at the heart of ETA.

“I know that all of Spanish society has been through bad times in the past few months and that on occasion there has been a loss of confidence,” he said. “But we have to persevere in the anti-terrorist struggle.”

Nicolas Redondo Terreros, head of the Basque branch of the Spanish Socialist Party, said he hoped the latest arrest meant that police had “chopped off the head” of the outlawed group.

French police sources confirmed Gracia Arregui’s detention in southwestern France, where many members of ETA’s collective leadership have been in hiding in recent years following a crackdown by police in Spain’s Basque region.

A woman who was in the apartment with him was also taken into custody, Spanish officials said.

Active Guerrilla Group

Authorities say Gracia Arregui joined ETA at the age of 19 and soon became a member of one of its commando units.

He worked his way up through the ranks and was believed to have joined the leadership committee in the early 1990s.

The latest guerrilla offensive that hit its peak in August has appeared aimed at forcing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to negotiate ETA’s demands for self-determination — something he has rejected as non-negotiable.

ETA has become Western Europe’s most active armed separatist organization since Northern Ireland’s cease-fire halted attacks by the Irish Republican Army.

ETA, which stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language, has been blamed for about 800 deaths in its 32-year-long fight for a separate state carved out of southern France and northern Spain.