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Spain cracks down on militant Basque nationalists; 23 leaders arrested

MADRID - Spanish authorities have intensified their crackdown on militant Basque nationalists, arresting 23 leaders of Batasuna, the political wing of the armed separatist group ETA.

The arrests of most of Batasuna's leadership, in a police raid Thursday night, are likely to bolster support for the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero among voters who back tougher measures against Basque militants as Spain prepares for general elections in March.

"Zapatero needs to appear as hard as the right is," Jonan Fernandez, a former member of Batasuna who now runs Baketik, a peace institute based in the Basque country, said in a telephone interview.

"The people who will pay for this are the Basques."

Zapatero was widely criticized after ETA bombed Madrid airport in December, killing two people and shattering a nine-month-old cease-fire and a peace effort that the prime minister had declared to be in good health less than 24 hours earlier. ETA then insisted that its cease-fire was intact but officially ended it in June.

Since then, the judiciary and the police have clamped down on ETA, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department and the European Union.

Members of Batasuna, which was outlawed five years ago because of its sympathies with ETA, have also come under new pressure.

The police arrested the Batasuna leaders as they left a secret meeting in the town of Segura, in the Basque region of northern Spain, an Interior Ministry official and a member of Batasuna said.Batasuna is banned from holding meetings or running in elections.

Baltasar Garzon, a high-profile antiterrorism judge, ordered the arrests on charges of holding an illegal political meeting, spokeswomen for the National Court and for the police said yesterday.

Jone Goirizelaia, a lawyer for Batasuna, said that the party leaders were being held incommunicado and that she would be informed Sunday of the charges against each one.

The attorney general, Candido Conde Pumpido, welcomed the arrests yesterday, asserting that the Batasuna leaders supported a terrorist group.

"Such activities cannot be tolerated," he told RNE, a Spanish radio station. "If the police find out about them, as they did in Segura, it seems prudent that they be ordered to intervene."

But Pernando Barreda, a Batasuna spokesman, dismissed the arrests as a political stunt.

A former member of Batasuna and a political analyst in the Basque country yesterday predicted that the crackdown would galvanize the nationalist movement and help heal rifts that had opened in the past year within Batasuna.

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