Leaders of Basque Separatist Group Arrested

Two of Spain's most wanted terror suspects and at least 16 other alleged members of the armed Basque separatist (search) group ETA (search) were captured Sunday in a vast French-Spanish police operation, authorities said.

Mikel Albizu Iriarte, the suspected top leader of ETA's political wing since 1993, and his partner Soledad Iparraguirre were arrested near Pau in southwestern France, according to French investigators and Spanish authorities.

France's government described the arrests as a turning point in the fight against the armed group that has carried out bombings and assassinations in Spain for an independent Basque state since the 1960s.

"It is a fine victory," said Justice Minister Dominique Perben (search) on Europe-1 radio. He said the raids, which involved some 140 officers, also turned up bomb-making equipment.

Spanish Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said French police seized hundreds of pounds of explosives and dozens of weapons, including assault rifles and grenade launchers.

"It's an operation of extreme importance that can be described as historic," Alonso said. But he did not declare the battle against ETA over.

"Despite the fact that it is a big blow, the security forces are on high alert," he said. "We must not drop our guard."

Mikel Albizu and Iparraguirre, both 43, had been on the run since 1993.

They were with their daughter when they were arrested, police said. They had false papers and refused to answer questions but were identified by police agents and, Spain said, by their fingerprints.

ETA militants have long crossed into peaceful Basque provinces of southwest France to take refuge or make plans. French and Spanish authorities closely cooperate to hunt them down. ETA is classified as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States. It has claimed or has been blamed for more than 800 deaths.

French authorities said all but one of the 16 other suspected ETA members were arrested in towns between Pau and Bayonne in southwest France.

The other suspect arrested in the northern Spanish city of Burgos is thought to have planted bombs for ETA at power installations in September. His wife was among those detained in France.

"The arrests are part of an excellent collaboration between Spain and France in anti-terrorism policies," said Alonso, the Spanish minister. His ministry put the number of suspects in custody at 21. The discrepancy with the French figure of 18 could not immediately be explained.