Police close Batasuna's offices in northern Basque region

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

BILBAO, Spain -- Local police fired rubber bullets at demonstrators and defused a bomb Tuesday after a Spanish judge's order to shut down a pro-independence political party pitted Basque against Basque.

The regional police force, the Ertzaintza, closed the main offices of the Batasuna party in the cities of Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria, a day after the order issued by the nation's chief anti-terrorism judge, Baltasar Garzon.

The judge's order accused Batasuna of collaborating with the armed separatist group ETA, which has killed 836 people since it began its violent campaign in 1968 for independence for the northern region of 2 million inhabitants.

Garzon ordered Batasuna shut down for three years, barring it from holding rallies and running in elections, under a law that allows judges to suspend groups linked to illegal activities. He said Batasuna is an "element" of ETA's violent campaign.

In Bilbao, police dragged away protesters and smashed down a reinforced door after sawing through the chains that Batasuna members had used to lock themselves in the party's office.

At least 20 protesters appeared to be injured -- most were bruised -- in the clashes with police who swung rubber clubs and fired rubber bullets at demonstrators.

"The Basque police are traitors to their people," said Paul Etxebarria, a 23-year-old political science student who was among hundreds of protesters who had gathered since Monday night outside Batasuna's Arenal Street office in the pouring rain.

"They are ... executing the orders of the fascist Aznar," he added, referring to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

The judicial order placed Basque President Juan Jose Ibarretxe's self-rule administration, which directs the Ertzaintza, in an uncomfortable position.

Although his Basque Nationalist Party condemns ETA violence -- and Ertzaintza police have been targeted by ETA gunmen -- the party went against the consensus Monday in a 295-10 parliamentary vote to outlaw Batasuna altogether.

Ibarretxe's party argued that the ban would be an infringement on the democratic freedom of expression. The Supreme Court, which must approve the ban, is expected to consider it next week.

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