MADRID, Oct 5 (Reuters) Radical Basque nationalists called protests today after Spanish police arrested almost all the top members of a party banned for links to ETA rebels.
Police detained 23 leaders of the illegal Batasuna party during a meeting in the Basque town of Segura last night, further enflaming the issue of Basque separatism which already looked set to dominate next March's Spanish general elections.
Handcuffed and grim-faced, prominent Batasuna officials including spokesman Joseba Permach were led into unmarked police cars by officers in civilian clothing, their identities concealed by hooded tops and balaclava masks.
Details of charges were not immediately available, although the arrests were ordered by Spain's best-known judge, Baltasar Garzon, who is investigating Batasuna links to ETA.
Posters calling for demonstrations today night appeared in Basque villages. Basque newspaper Gara, which sympathises with Batasuna, called the arrests ''A declaration of war.'' Batasuna's top leader, Arnaldo Otegi, has been in prison since June for praising ETA, which has killed more than 800 people in four decades of struggle for independence from Spain.
The latest detentions show Spanish authorities are determined to get tougher with radical nationalists at a time when calls for independence are shaking mainstream politics in the Basque Country.
Both Batasuna and the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which runs the Basque Country regional government, said the arrests were politically motivated.
''It seems very suspicious that the courts always act at crucial points for politics,'' said the Basque Country government's justice minister, Joseba Azkarraga.
CHALLENGE TO MADRID The PNV condemns ETA violence. But the PNV-led Basque government openly challenged Madrid last week by announcing a plan for a referendum which could potentially lead to talks on independence.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero rejected the referendum plan as unconstitutional. The vote would ask Basques to authorise local political parties to debate the region's future relationship with Spain.
Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said the arrests had nothing to do with politics.
''These detentions are part of the normal operation of the courts, which are independent,'' she told a news conference.
But the most senior member of Batasuna still in liberty called the arrests an act of ''revenge'' by the government, which broke off failed peace talks with ETA last December after the rebels killed two people with a bomb at Madrid airport.
''This distances us from any moves towards peace,'' said Pernando Barrena, as he visited Arnaldo Otegi at Martutene prison near San Sebastian.
Zapatero's socialists have a slim opinion poll lead over the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP), which accuses him of being soft on separatists. The PP welcomed the arrests.
''But I also say that we need an explanation for why this didn't happen earlier,'' said Leopoldo Barrera, a senior PP member in the Basque Country.
REUTERS PDT KP2203