Basque Separatists Call Cease-Fire ; after Four Decades of Deadly Violence, ETA Declared a Permanent Truce to Begin Friday

By Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

Basque Separatists Call Cease-Fire ; after Four Decades of Deadly Violence, ETA Declared a Permanent Truce to Begin Friday


Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The Basque separatist group ETA's declaration Wednesday of a permanent cease-fire offers the prospect of an end to one of Europe's longest running civil conflicts, and a new constitutional future for Spain that could reshape the country's political map.

But the group's videotaped statement, aired on Spanish TV, marks only the first step toward resolving Madrid's thorniest challenge.

"The government's position is one of caution and prudence," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told parliament, responding to ETA's announcement. "Any peace process after so many years of horror and terror will be long and difficult."

The statement from ETA, which has been fighting for 40 years for an independent Basque state, explained the cease-fire - which goes into effect Friday - as a bid to "promote a democratic process in the Basque country ... in which our rights as a people will be recognized." The government, it warned "must recognize the results of this democratic process with no type of limitation."

Politicians had been speculating for weeks that the armed group, which has killed more than 800 people, was about to announce an end to its violent struggle. The government had repeatedly refused to open talks with ETA until it renounced the use of force.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega told the Senate Wednesday that the authorities would "work with all political forces" to bring peace to the Basque country, in Spain's Northeast. She said she hoped the cease-fire marked "the beginning of the end" of ETA, which stands for "Basque Homeland and Freedom" in the Basque language.

ETA has demanded that the Spanish government recognize the Basque country's right to declare independence, if a referendum in the region backs such a decision. Though Mr. Zapatero has ruled out such a move, his government has shown more tolerance of regional separatists than previous administrations.

On Tuesday, the Spanish parliament approved a new relationship between the central government and Catalonia, recognizing it as "a nation." Some observers suggested that the vote encouraged ETA to hope for a similar, or better, deal if it renounces violence. Last year, parliament authorized the government to hold talks with ETA, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States, on the condition the group laid down its arms.

"If I was in ETA I would be optimistic" about the outcome of expected negotiations, says Florentino Portero, an analyst at the Strategic Studies Group, a think tank in Madrid. "Zapatero is a new generation of politician with a radically new way of conceiving of the state" as a confederation of sovereign regions.

On the streets of the Basque city of Bilbao, some citizens welcomed the news of the cease-fire. "I am very happy this has happened," says Inaki Muniain, a hotel receptionist, by phone. "This gives us hope that things will get better and that ETA will disappear or end up as a political party."

Echoing that optimism, Juan Aviles, expert in terrorism and security at the Universidad Nacional a Distancia "It's good news. It could really be the end of ETA's terrorism. You always have to be cautious when talking about terrorists, but I believe that this declaration could be the end of the nightmare that we've lived for almost 40 years."

Others were more cautious. "I don't believe it at all," scoffs Nestor Diez Seisdedos, a quality-control inspector at an electrical appliance factory in Barakaldo, also reached by phone. …

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