A French policeman has died in a shootout southeast of Paris with Basque-speaking gunmen linked by Spanish media to the Basque armed separatist group ETA.

'Several leads were being explored,' sources close to the inquiry said today, with the 'most serious' implicating ETA after one of the men involved in the shootout was arrested and gave a Basque identity.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero later said that the fatal shooting was ‘a criminal action carried out by the terrorist group ETA’.

A gunfight broke out near Dammarie-les-Lys, 50 km southeast of the French capital, after a police patrol checked the identities of a group that had stolen cars from a garage.

Sources close to the inquiry said a police patrol tried to question three men and a woman in a stolen BMW near Dammarie-les-Lys when a second vehicle with two men on board pulled up and one of them opened fire.

A 52-year-old policeman died, hit in the thorax despite his bulletproof vest. His colleagues returned fire but it was not known if any of the group was hit.

Spanish daily El Mundo identified the man who was arrested as Josebo Fernandez Aspurz, saying he ‘was speaking Basque and identified himself as a member of the terrorist organization’.

ETA, regarded as a terrorist group by both the European Union and the United States, is blamed for 828 deaths in its 41-year campaign for independence for the