September 22, 2015 / 4:09 PM / 3 years ago

Spain, France arrest leaders of Basque separatist militants ETA

MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish and French police have arrested the two leaders of the militant Basque separatists ETA, the Spanish Interior Ministry said on Tuesday, further weakening the group that announced an indefinite halt to its campaign of violence in 2011.

ETA, which aims to establish an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southern France, has resisted demands to turn in its arms since its declaration four years ago.

Iratxe Sorzabal, 43, and David Pla, 40, were arrested in a country house in the small northern French town of Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorry. Both have previously spent time in jail and both were in hiding.

The arrests mean those responsible for the management of ETA’s remaining arms stash are no longer at large, the ministry said. The operation leading to their capture is still open, it said.

“This operation leaves ETA absolutely leaderless,” said Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz. “I would even say it amounts to ETA’s death certificate.”

Two other people were arrested at the same time including the owner of the house, the Interior Ministry said, without giving their names.

Sorzabal and Pla were two of the three masked separatists who announced an end to the campaign of violence in 2011 in televised images widely distributed at the time, El Pais newspaper said.

ETA was formed in the late 1950s during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who suppressed the Basque language and culture.

Over the years the group killed more than 800 people, according to the Spanish government, and the death toll in the conflict goes higher when it includes death squad killings of ETA members and bystanders.

However, the nationalist group had been severely weakened in recent years by the arrests of hundreds of its members and seizures of its weapons.

(This version of the story was refiled to drop extraneous word in second paragraph)

Reporting by Raquel Castillo and Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Dominic Evans

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