Cease-fire for Basques

Spain cautiously optimistic about truce with separatists

March 23, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON | TRACY WILKINSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain -- The Basque separatist group ETA declared a permanent cease-fire yesterday and pledged to step away from decades of violence, a major breakthrough that could end Europe's last armed conflict.

The announcement came at a time of military and political weakness for the militant organization, which has fought for independence from Spain for nearly 40 years and claimed hundreds of victims in bombings and sabotage.

It follows a fierce crackdown under the previous Spanish government and a period of rumored negotiation, officially denied, with the current one. The ETA has also seen its popular support fade amid public outrage over deadly bombings in Madrid two years ago by Islamic radicals.

"This is very good news for all Spaniards," Vice President Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said as reports of the truce swept the country. Urging prudence, she added: "We very much hope this is the beginning of the end."

Reactions here cleaved along political lines. While the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero responded with cautious elation, the conservative opposition said that the ETA's move fell short of surrender and was therefore nothing more than a ruse. Ordinary Spaniards were full of tentative hope.

The ETA declared the cease-fire, effective tomorrow, through a videotaped statement released around midday and broadcast on Basque and Spanish television. Unlike two previous cease-fires that collapsed after several months of negotiations, this declaration uses the term "permanent" and makes no conditions.

In the announcement, three members of the guerrilla group, wearing white masks and the black berets typical of Basque country, sit at a table bearing the words Euskal Herria, a reference in Basque to a greater Basque homeland. Behind them hung a banner with the ETA insignia of a snake twisted around a hatchet. The statement was read, unusually, by a woman, who sat in the middle. The group said its purpose was to "drive the democratic process" in the Basque country that ensures "the development of all political options."

"ETA has shown its desire and will that the process now begun should reach a conclusion and thus achieve true democracy in the Basque country, overcoming long years of violence and constructing a peace based on justice," the statement said.

A 1979 referendum established the Basque Autonomous Community on the Bay of Biscay near the French border, comprising the provinces of Alava, Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa. It has its own police force, education system and health system.

Basques, who number about 2.2 million in Spain, are descendants of what may be one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe. Polls indicate about half favor a free state more loosely associated with Spain. Many who advocate statehood, however, do not support the ETA's violent ways.

The ETA - whose initials are an acronym for Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) - declared cease-fires in 1989 and 1998, but the negotiations that followed collapsed within a few months.

But this announcement may be different, analysts say, coming after the arrest and imprisonment of senior leaders, the capture of a major arsenal and the banning from politics of its political wing. Opinion polls have shown a widening weariness of violence in the Basque country and growing rejection of bloodshed.

"There can never be a total guarantee, but what's clear is that [the cease-fire] is a solid base for a peace process," said Gorka Espiau, director of Elkarri, a Basque organization in the city of Bilbao that promotes dialogue. "They are showing a will to disappear and end the violence. It is extraordinary."

Espiau, a senior fellow at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, pointed out that the wording of the communique released yesterday emulated the language of the landmark statement by the Irish Republican Army.

In addition, the Basque separatists had never used the word "permanent" in earlier truces.

A secretive organization that was founded during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the ETA has killed more than 800 people since 1968, including police officers, mayors and politicians. Hundreds more, among them journalists, justices and intellectuals, have been threatened.

No one has been killed by ETA attacks since May 2003, although bombings since then have injured more than 100 people. The group had resorted to an intense campaign of blackmail and extorted a fortune from businessmen, bankers and even premier chefs fearing attacks on their property. Future negotiations, if they are undertaken, would include numerous difficult issues, including the disarming of its cadres and the fate of its members held in Spanish prisons.

"Any peace process, after so many years of horror and terror, will be long and difficult," Zapatero, the prime minister, said during a special session of parliament yesterday afternoon.

He called for unity among all political parties and repeatedly used the words calm, caution and prudence, language aimed at deflecting critics who suggest he has been too soft on independence-minded factions in Spain.

Mariano Rajoy, leader of the main opposition Popular Party, attacked the ETA's declaration, noting it did not renounce all criminal activity or ask for forgiveness from its many victims. Without such concessions, entering into talks with the ETA rewards terrorism, he said.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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