CAUTERETS - French police arrested ETA's alleged military chief yesterday, the most wanted Basque separatist still at large and a man Spanish officials branded a "bloodthirsty terrorist."

Mikel de Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, 35, alias Txeroki, was captured in Cauterets, a spa and ski resort in the Pyrenees near the border with Spain's autonomous Basque region, which ETA wants to see independent.

The arrest came just six months after that of the militant separatist group's presumed leader, 49-year-old Javier Lopez Pena, and Spanish officials boasted that the operation had "decapitated" the organization.

"Today, ETA is weaker and Spanish democracy is stronger," Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero declared.

'Hard blow’ to ETA
"It has not lost its capacity to cause harm," he warned in a televised statement. "But with this arrest it has suffered a hard blow to its organization and its capacity." French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie accused Txeroki of shooting dead two Spanish undercover officers in France in December last year. "He will in all likelihood be handed over to the Spanish authorities," she told reporters in Paris. Txeroki is reputed to be a hard-liner opposed to talks with the Spanish government, and Zapatero's ruling Socialist Party hailed the arrest.

"This is magnificent news of great importance because it is the chief of the ETA commandos, the person who was behind attacks, who gave the order to kill and who himself killed, a very bloodthirsty terrorist," the party said.

France, once a safe haven for Basque militants, has arrested a number of ETA suspects since the group called off a 15-month-old ceasefire in June 2007, shattering hopes of a peace settlement. According to Spanish press reports, Txeroki was one of the ETA members most opposed to peace talks with the Madrid government. He is said to have ordered the Dec. 30, 2006 bombing of a Madrid airport car park that killed two people.