Spanish police seize van loaded with explosives; 4 Basque separatists detained in 2 countries

By Harold Heckle, AP
Sunday, January 10, 2010

4 Basque separatists arrested in Portugal, France

MADRID — Four suspected members of the Basque separatist group ETA were arrested in Portugal and France, one driving a van loaded with explosives near a police barracks, the government said Sunday.

Two ETA suspects were captured in northern Portugal after one was stopped while driving the van through the northwestern Spanish town of Bermillo de Sayago, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) east of the border with Portugal, regional Interior Ministry spokesman Miguel Angel Vicente told The Associated Press.

Several houses in Bermillo de Sayago, which has a population of 1,000, were evacuated and the area around the van was cordoned off, Vicente said. He did not give details about the quantity of explosives, but said the van was stopped in the town center, not far from a police barracks.

The ministry later confirmed in a statement the van contained 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of explosives, two pistols, a rifle and unspecified bomb-making material.

ETA has targeted police buildings in the past, using car bombs in such attacks. The most recent case was in July when ETA acknowledged it had detonated 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of explosives packed into a van parked near a Civil Guard barracks in the northern city of Burgos, injuring 60 people including children.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said a man and woman in France were arrested in central Clermont-Ferrand as they approached a weapons stash.

He said police had seized two guns, money and false identification papers.

French police and judicial officials said the couple, both in their 30s, were detained in Chadrat (near Clermont-Ferrand) as they neared the cache in a forest. Each carried €3000 ($4,282) in cash, a gun and they were both in a car that had been stolen in France.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said the arrests were the fruit of months of surveillance by France’s domestic counterterrorism agency and not linked to the Portuguese arrests.

Vicente said two police officers stopped the van in Spain around 10 p.m. Saturday (2100 GMT, 4 p.m. EST) when their suspicions were raised by its French license plates. The driver of the van then pushed passed the police and proceeded to flee the scene driving off in their patrol car which he stole.

The police alerted their Portuguese counterparts who rapidly arrested the man and a woman, who had been following the van in a presumed getaway vehicle with French plates, authorities said.

Rubalcaba had warned in late December that ETA might try an attack to coincide with Spain’s turn as president of the European Union, which began Jan. 1.

ETA has waged a violent campaign of bombings and shootings since 1968 that has killed more than 825 people in a separatist attempt to carve an independent Basque state straddling northern Spain and southwest France.

Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.

will not be displayed