March 22, 2006

Basque separatist group ETA declares ceasefire

By Jane Barrett and Elisabeth O'Leary

MADRID/SAN SEBASTIAN (Reuters) - The Basque separatist
group ETA declared a permanent ceasefire on Wednesday after
almost four decades of attacks in Spain, potentially ending one
of Western Europe's bloodiest guerrilla campaigns.

ETA said it hoped the truce, due to start on Friday, would
give Basques more of a say in their future, but others said the
peace process had a long way to go and pointed out that ETA had
broken ceasefires twice in the 1990s.

Three members of ETA, which wants to create an independent
state in northern Spain and southwest France, appeared on
television in black berets, white hoods covering their faces.

"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,"
one of them, a woman, read in Spanish.

The statement made no mention of giving up arms altogether.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who
last year offered talks if ETA gave up violence, cautiously
welcomed the truce and the possibility of peace after a
campaign that killed nearly 850 people before a recent lull.

"After so many years of horror and terror it will be a long
and difficult process," said Zapatero, who has put devolving
more power to Spain's regions high on his agenda.

ETA, which means Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque
language, emerged as a student resistance movement in the early
1960s against the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Branded a terrorist organization by the European Union and
Washington, the group has been weakened in recent months by
arrests and legal moves against Batasuna, the outlawed Basque
party regarded as its political wing.

Support also drained away after the 2004 Madrid train
bombings by suspected Islamist fundamentalists, which the
right-wing government of the day first blamed on ETA, and
thousands marched last month in protest against any
government-ETA talks.


It is unclear how many of the 2.1 million Basques truly
want an independent state or whether they would be happy with
more power devolved to their autonomous region, run by the
moderate Basque Nationalist Party.

"It is the duty of ETA to no longer frustrate the dreams of
our people," said Basque government leader Juan Jose Ibarretxe.

The Association of Victims of Terrorism, which links people
affected by groups including ETA, said it rejected the truce as
"a trick by assassins to gain political aims" and called on ETA
to disband and hand its members over for trial.

People on the street expressed mixed reactions to the
ceasefire, with some happy but others not willing to trust a
group that has carried out bombings and extorted money from
Basque businesses.

"I think it's false. I think they want to use it to rearm
themselves. They should hand in their arms or the war
continues," said Ramon Saenz de Tejada, a 30-year-old taxi
driver from the Basque city of San Sebastian.

The question of putting arms beyond use has also been a
sticking point in Northern Ireland, where the IRA is disarming
amid distrust among pro-British parties.

Analysts pointed out that ETA called this a "permanent"
ceasefire rather than the previous ones which were "unlimited"
and "partial" and said it could spell a final end to violence.

Batasuna said the truce was a "brave and difficult
decision" and it was now up to Madrid to stop "repressive

The truce could also affect a hearing on Friday when a
judge is due to decide whether to jail Batasuna leader Arnaldo
Otegi for breaking bail terms.

Batasuna has previously suggested a two-track negotiation
-- one between Basque parties on the future of the region and
the other between ETA, France and Spain on ending the violence.

French President Jacques Chirac welcomed the ceasefire as
"a great hope for Spain and the fight against terrorism" but a
Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated that France would not get
involved in a question "which falls under Spanish sovereignty."

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