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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Spain investigates Venezuela ETA report

MADRID, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Spain is investigating a report that Venezuela has offered nationality to four wanted ETA guerrillas so they can avoid extradition back home, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said on Tuesday.

A report by Spanish news agency Vasco Press said Venezuela had also agreed to pay compensation of more than 325,000 euros ($432,900) for failing to follow proper procedure when it extradited two other ETA members to Spain in 2002.

"I have just spoken to Foreign Minister (Miguel Angel Moratinos) and he is trying to find out what is behind this news story and react appropriately," Rubalcaba told Spanish radio from Brussels.

He did not identify the four people said to have been offered passports.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, a self-styled left-wing revolutionary, has often annoyed other governments for alleged links with illegal armed groups, including Colombian Marxist rebels. Spanish authorities believe ETA members began taking refuge in Venezuela in the 1990s.

But Chavez's government, closely allied to Cuba and a fierce opponent of the United States, has until now had excellent relations with Socialist-led Spain.

Venezuela's ambassador to Spain, Arevalo Mendez Romero, told Spanish national radio he could not confirm the nationality offer but that he was aware of a court case brought by relatives of the two men extradited in 2002.

"There is a case at the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which is part of the Organisation of American States, for the supposed illegal removal of these people from Venezuela," Mendez Romero said.

The report comes at a tense moment for the Spanish government's peace process with ETA, which killed more than 800 people in a four-decade struggle for independence of the Basque Country but declared a permanent cease-fire in March.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced in June that he would start peace talks with ETA but the process has bogged down as regular low-level street violence continues in the northern Basque Country.
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