Basque rebels end 14-month cease-fire

Sides exchange blame

separatists say attacks could resume Friday


MADRID, Spain -- The Basque separatist group ETA announced yesterday that it would end a 14-month cease-fire. The rebels warned that armed attacks could resume as early as Friday in their long struggle for an independent homeland.

The cease-fire has been the longest period of calm in three decades of separatist violence and had initially raised hopes that both sides would use it as an opportunity to work out a lasting peace for a conflict that authorities say has killed about 800 people.

The rebels' statement, published yesterday in the Basque newspaper Gara, blamed the failure to reach a lasting peace on the governments of Spain and France and on moderate Basque nationalists.

The Spanish government disagreed. In response to the ETA announcement, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar accused the rebels of intransigence and said that they were solely responsible for breaking the cease-fire.

"ETA is wrong again if it thinks that with coercion, blackmail or terror it will cause a breakdown in democracy and freedom," Aznar said in a statement that was nationally televised. "ETA is wrong to think it can turn citizens into hostages and put a price on peace."

The peace effort, which began on Sept. 16, 1998, when the rebels announced an indefinite cease-fire, has been stalled for months. There was one round of talks between the government and the rebels, on May 19 in Switzerland. The rebels said in August that they would not attend a second meeting, accusing the government of seeking political gain from the truce.

"The process is blocked and poisoned," ETA's statement said yesterday. "Responding to a pledge to defend the Basque country, the decision has been taken to reactivate the use of armed struggle. From Dec. 3, it is up to ETA to inform its operational commandos when to take action."

ETA, whose initials stand for the Basque words for Basque Homeland and Liberty, has insisted on self-determination for 2.6 million people who live in Spain's four historic Basque provinces and 250,000 others in the French part of the Basque region.

But the Spanish government has said it was willing to discuss only possible leniency for hundreds of Basque prisoners and exiles. Madrid has called for the rebels to permanently renounce violence.

"The government has done, is doing and will do all it can to achieve a lasting peace," Aznar said yesterday. National elections are to be held by April, and the peace process is likely to be a backdrop to his campaign for a second term.

Spanish political leaders expressed disappointment at the ending of the cease-fire, but urged Spaniards not to lose hope for peace.

Six million people marched in the streets in July 1997 to demand peace after the rebels kidnapped and killed a Basque town councilman, Miguel Angel Blanco.

That outpouring of public sentiment was seen as a turning point in the fight against terrorism, along with the increasingly efficient police crackdown against the rebels in Spain and in their hide-outs in France.

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