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Eta raises stakes by killing guard on French soil

By Elizabeth Nash in Madrid

A Spanish civil guard policeman has been killed and another seriously hurt after they were shot by suspected Eta Basque separatists in the French coastal resort of Capbreton, north of Biarritz.

It is the first time the armed separatists have been blamed for a fatal attack on French soil since 1976, and the killing dramatically raises the stakes in Spain's long battle against Basque violence.

The funeral of Raul Centeno, 24, took place yesterday in Madrid with full state honours. His flag-draped coffin was saluted by King Juan Carlos, the Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and other political and military leaders.

His comrade Fernando Trapero, 23, was being treated in hospital in Bayonne, where doctors said he was in a deep coma and effectively brain dead. Saturday's killing is the first attributed to Eta since it ended a ceasefire in June.

The plain-clothes Spanish officers were conducting an undercover surveillance operation with their French counterparts when the attack occurred, authorities said. The police and the Eta suspects apparently encountered each other by chance while breakfasting in a café, and after recognising each other, the two policemen left. They were gunned down as they got into their car, in the first killing by Basque armed separatists in almost a year. Mr Centeno received a bullet in the head and died instantly. French police continued to hunt for two men and a woman who fled the scene in a Volkswagen Golf. They later abandoned it to hi-jack another, briefly taking the woman driver hostage.

Investigators believe the three suspects may have been preparing an attack in Spain. "Security services are working on the hypothesis that it was an armed unit ready to enter Spain," Spain's Interior Minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, said. The café was not a regular haunt of the police officers, and "this was not a premeditated act," he said.

In a radio interview yesterday morning, he declined to confirm whether the policemen were armed. "I can't say. They were... as they usually are," he said, with some hesitation.

International law forbids foreign nationals to carry arms in another country. But Spanish commentators – and Mr Trapero's family – expressed dismay that officers were sent "without means of defence" to confront potential assassins.

French police found material in an escape car they said could have been used to make explosives. Eta usually blows up its getaway cars to destroy evidence.

"Spanish society shows its deep disgust with those who scorn the most fundamental right, the right to life," Mr Zapatero said. "They won't achieve anything with violence."

The French Interior Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, said the joint police operation was targeted at Eta members "who come to French territory to seek refuge or to prepare operations". She said the shooting followed a "chance encounter" between police and the suspects, and was "absolutely exceptional."

All parties in Spain closed ranks in a rare joint repudiation of the attack, for the first time in years. Political parties, and representatives of trades unions and employers' organisations signed a joint declaration condemning the attack and backing the security forces in their fight against terrorism.

Mr Zapatero took office in 2004 and pledged to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. Eta declared a ceasefire in March 2006 but grew impatient with slow progress in talks with the government. It killed two people in a car bombing at Madrid airport in December 2006, and declared the truce over in June.

Belfast Telegraph


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