Basque separatist group ETA announces permanent cease-fire

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jubilant citizens say they can hardly believe the end has come for the group.

VITORIA, Spain -- The Basque militant group ETA ended a decades-long campaign of terror, announcing a permanent cease-fire Wednesday that closes the door on one of Western Europe's last armed separatist movements.

In a videotaped statement, three shrouded ETA members said they were laying down their weapons to promote democracy in the northern Spanish region. The news prompted jubilation across Spain, where ordinary citizens say they can hardly believe the end has come for a group blamed for more than 800 deaths and $15.5 billion in damage since the 1960s.

Caution and hope

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has made granting more rule to Spain's regions a key goal, expressed caution and hope at ETA's statement. He was evasive when asked if he would start negotiating with ETA under an offer he made last year, contingent on the group renouncing violence.

"Any peace process after so many years of horror and terror will be long and difficult," he told parliament. Zapatero said that until now, Spain's political parties had been joined in pain over ETA violence. "Now I trust we will be joined in hope."

The cease-fire was seen as a huge victory for Zapatero, but his critics maintained a hard line, saying they would fight to ensure the government does not give too much away.

"One cannot pay a political price for peace. If we were to do so, terrorism would have won," said Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative opposition Popular Party.

ETA, established in the late 1960s, campaigned to carve out an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France.

The video showed three people seated at a table in front of an ETA flag, their faces covered by beige masks and all wearing Basque berets. The figure in the middle, a woman, read the statement.

Democratic process

ETA "has decided to declare a permanent cease-fire as of March 24, 2006," the statement said. It also stated the aim of the cease-fire is "to promote a democratic process in the Basque country and to build a new framework in which our rights as a people will be recognized."

The statement was sent to several Basque media outlets, including the radical Basque newspaper Gara. The newspaper said Wednesday it also was in possession of another, complementary ETA statement, but would not publish it or comment on it until today.

The announcement set off quiet celebrations around the country.

"It's the news we were waiting for many years. It's the best news I have received lately," said Jose Felix Urbano, 52, an administrative worker in Vitoria, capital of the Basque region. "I hope that from here on I can live in a normal country."

Barbara Durkhop, the widow of ETA victim Enrique Casas, killed in 1984, said she was hopeful but nervous.

"The first thing I thought was that now there will be no more deaths," she told Spanish television station Quatro. "This could pave the way, once and for all, to the peace process that we have waited for so long."

In Madrid, there was shock, and a bit of caution.

"It's amazing! I hope to God it's true," said Sandra Dorada, a 29-year-old postal worker. "But they (ETA) have said this before and it wasn't true."

The Bush administration's initial reaction was positive. "Any decisive steps taken by ETA to give up violence should be welcomed," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Speculation about an end to ETA's armed campaign has been building for months, despite a recent wave of small-scale bombings.

The prime minister has offered to hold talks with Basque separatist leaders once ETA agreed to lay down its arms, and parliament backed the move in a resolution passed in May.

Asked Wednesday if ETA's announcement meant the government can now open talks with ETA, Zapatero said: "I will take my time to study the parliamentary resolution. It is essential for proceeding safely."

ETA has announced cease-fires in the past but never one it has called permanent.

Many Spaniards believed that after the March 11, 2004, terrorist attacks in Madrid, carried out by Islamic extremists, ETA had effectively been stymied. The idea is that popular revulsion over terrorism made more deadly violence politically unthinkable.

Over the years, ETA has mostly targeted security force members, although in the 1990s it increasingly began to kill politicians. In 1995, in one of its most audacious plots, it tried to assassinate Jose Maria Aznar, then an opposition leader who would go on to become prime minister. Nobody was seriously injured.

ETA stands for Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna, Basque Homeland and Freedom.

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