Concern mounts in Spain over ETA presence in Venezuela

Madrid (Deutsche Presse)- Concern is mounting in Spain over allegations that Venezuela is protecting members of the militant Basque separatist group ETA who are living in the Latin American country.

Venezuela has denied cooperating with ETA, but has not handed over several ETA activists wanted by Spain. The Spanish opposition is now pressing Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government to be tougher with Caracas.

‘We have trust in Venezuela’s willingness to cooperate, which was expressed recently in a joint declaration,’ a Spanish diplomatic source told the German Press Agency dpa.

ETA, which has killed more than 820 people in its campaign for an independent Basque country since 1968, remains a major security problem for Spain, even though its military capacity has dwindled.

Some 150 current or former ETA members are believed to be living in Latin America – mainly in Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico.

Many of them were deported to those countries based on inter- governmental agreements, while others fled there.

Since Hugo Chavez became Venezuelan president in 1999, the country is seen in Spain as having become the main Latin American refuge of ETA members, up to 60 of whom live there.

Most of them have distanced themselves from ETA, but some continue helping to finance the group and receive members fleeing Spain, according to Spanish intelligence sources.

Both in Venezuela and Cuba, ‘there is quite a lot of solidarity with the ‘Basque cause’,’ but Cuba is more willing to cooperate with Spain on ETA, the daily El Mundo quoted police sources as saying.

Increasing evidence began emerging this year of ETA cooperating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), after Spanish judge Eloy Velasco accused the Chavez government of helping an alliance between the two armed groups.

Velasco charged six ETA and seven FARC suspects with crimes that included plans to kill Colombian political leaders and other personalities visiting or living in Spain.

Much of the evidence of the cooperation consisted of some 25 e- mails found on the computer of Raul Reyes, FARC’s second-in-command who was killed in an army raid in 2008.

Former FARC members also told police that ETA had trained hundreds of FARC soldiers in the use of explosives between 2003 and 2008, while FARC has taught ETA shooting and combat tactics.

Much of the training allegedly took place in Venezuela, where people who appeared to be members of the Venezuelan army and intelligence services were seen accompanying ETA activists.

Members of the Basque separatist association Askapena have also visited Venezuela on the invitation of associations close to Chavez, according to press reports.

The evidence of Chavez’ links with ETA is not conclusive, Spanish commentators observed. Chavez dismissed the evidence as an ‘imperialist’ plot against his government.

The president indirectly threatened to create problems for Spanish companies operating in Venezuela, if Madrid pressured him over ETA.

Spain has extensive economic interests in Venezuela, including investments estimated at more than 4 billion euros (5.3 billion dollars), and the Zapatero government has been careful not to spoil the relations with Caracas over ETA.

An incipient diplomatic row was calmed down, with Madrid and Caracas stressing their good relations and willingness to cooperate against terrorism.

Now, however, pressure is again mounting on Zapatero after Spanish media reported that Venezuela has not handed over Arturo Cubillas, whom judge Velasco wants to extradite as the alleged contact person between ETA and FARC.

Cubillas was deported to Venezuela in 1989, acquired the country’s citizenship and works as a senior agriculture official for the Chavez government.

Spain wants to try Cubillas on charges including the possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit terrorist killings, but Caracas has appeared reluctant to extradite him, with officials explaining that Venezuelan citizens should not be tried abroad.

Venezuela acknowledged having received a Spanish request for judicial cooperation a month ago, the diplomatic source said, explaining that Madrid was ‘waiting for information’ on the Cubillas case.

Earlier on, Spain had also issued extradition requests for six other ETA members, some of whom have been wanted for years for serious crimes such as killings. The requests produced no results, according to Spanish government sources.

Three ETA members wanted by Spain, two of whom the Venezuelan government claims to be unable to locate, are running a fisheries business in the Caribbean village of Guiria, El Mundo reported.

Another ETA activist living in Venezuela, Lorenzo Ayestaran, was detained in France in March, fuelling fears that some of the ETA members living in Latin America could return to Spain to take up arms again.