March 22, 2006

Basque separatists ETA declare ceasefire

By Jane Barrett

MADRID (Reuters) - Basque separatist group ETA on Wednesday
declared a permanent ceasefire after almost four decades of
bombings and shootings in Spain during its campaign for

ETA said it hoped the truce, due to start on Friday, would
drive forward its desire for Basques to be recognized as a
people, while Spain's Socialist government said it hoped the
ceasefire would be "the beginning of the end."

Politicians urged caution about any truce by ETA, which
broke two ceasefires in the 1990s and seeks independence on
territory in both northern Spain and southwest France.

Three ETA members appeared on state television to announce
the new truce, dressed in black berets and white hoods covering
their faces. They sat at a table in front of ETA's flag showing
a snake twisted around an axe.

"ETA has decided to declare a permanent ceasefire from
March 24, 2006," said a woman seated in the middle, reading
from a statement.

"The object of this decision is to drive the democratic
process in the Basque country in order to construct a new
framework in which our rights as a people will be recognized
and to ensure the future development of all political options."

ETA has been weakened in recent years by a police crackdown
with hundreds of arrests in France and Spain. ETA also lost
support after the 2004 Madrid train bombings, when Spaniards
recoiled in horror at the killing of 191 people by suspected
Islamist fundamentalists.

ETA, Western Europe's most active separatist group, has
killed 850 people and threatened and blackmailed thousands of
Basque businesses in its fight for independence. Its last fatal
attack was in 2003.

A ceasefire could open the way to talks with Spain's
Socialist government, which is far more inclined to cede more
power to Spain's regions than the previous conservative


"It is a very good piece of news for all Spaniards," said
Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, as
national television broke its regular programming to provide
wall-to-wall coverage of the ceasefire.

"The government has the duty to be extremely prudent, you
can't be cautious enough ... It is our desire and our wish that
this will be the beginning of the end," she added.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero actively raised
hopes of an ETA truce earlier this year, only for the group --
classed as a terrorist organization by the United States and
the European Union -- to start bombing again.

"We can take this truce very seriously," said Ignacio
Sanchez, the author of studies on ETA.

"They have been weakened more than ever, both by the
judiciary and the police. They are the last active terrorist
group in Western Europe and everything points to this being a
permanent truce," he told Reuters.

ETA's statement made two mentions of France being involved
in the future of the Basque Country, although Paris has always
refused to get involved in any talks with ETA.

"There is no question of France intervening in a problem
which falls under Spanish sovereignty," French Foreign Ministry
spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei reiterated. He did not comment
on the new communique.

It is unclear quite how many Basques truly want their own
state, having voted in a regional government run by the
moderate Nationalist Basque Party, which sits in Madrid's

Since 2003 ETA has set off only small bombs, which have
caused damage to buildings but no deaths.

(Additional reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary, Manuel Maria
Ruiz, Ben Harding, Joe Ortiz, Emma Pinedo, Blanca Rodriguez)