Eta signals an end to the bloodshed

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Eta, the Basque separatist group, yesterday made its first serious conciliatory gesture for years, potentially opening the way for dialogue to end three decades of violence. Elizabeth Nash asks whether the breakthrough amounts to more than rhetoric.

The Basque separatist organisation Eta yesterday announced the "total suspension of planned actions" in its campaign to bring prisoners dispersed throughout Spain to jails nearer home in the Basque country. They called instead for "Basque citizens, institutions and political parties to unite to multiply pressures for prisoners' rights, to achieve the goal of transferring prisoners".

If these words are translated into deeds, it would mean the most important policy change for the armed organisation for years, an admission that its bombs-and-bullets strategy had failed. For more than two years, Eta has been conducting a high-profile "prisons campaign", attacking prison officers and carrying out hunger strikes and behind-bars protests.

The announcement, published in the Basque pro-Eta newspaper Egin, came ahead of a meeting last night of the interior minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, with Basque parliamentary leaders to discuss policy towards prisoners. Mr Oreja said yesterday in response to Eta's statement: "Eta must say clearly it will stop killing ... That's the only thing Spaniards want to know."

Basque leaders have cautiously welcomed the move. The leader of the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) MPs in Madrid, Inaki Anasagasti, hailed the declaration as "a little truce".

The turnaround seems to have been prompted by the realisation that armed actions have been catastrophically counterproductive, prompting anti- Eta mobilisations of millions throughout Spain. In 1996, Eta kidnapped the prison officer Jose Antonio Ortega Lara, saying they would release him only when Eta prisoners were moved to the Basque country.

In July, police rescued Mr Ortega Lara from an underground hole after 532 days of captivity that left him a broken man. Days later, Eta kidnapped a conservative councillor, Miguel Angel Blanco, in the Basque village of Ermua, and threatened to kill him unless the government met demands on prisoners. The government refused, and Blanco was killed, prompting the biggest outpouring of popular protest Spain has seen.

Eta has been very quiet since then, and it was widely felt in Basque political circles that the July events had humiliated the organisation and plunged it into crisis. The cause was not helped by having 23 leaders of the pro-Eta Herri Batasuna party on trial before the supreme court charged with collaborating with terrorists. A verdict is due shortly, but attempts by HB to drum up protests against the trial were a conspicuous flop. Indications were that Eta sympathisers were putting out feelers to try to recoup lost ground in Basque public opinion. One prominent lawyer in Bilbao, a former HB leader cast out by younger radicals, when questioned recently about this possibility laughed and said: "People who have cut me for years are now greeting me in the street ... I think something is up."

More specific was Joseba Eguibar, deputy leader of the PNV which controls the Basque regional government and is an ally of the ruling Popular Party in Madrid. Speaking recently in San Sebastian, regional capital of Guipuzcoa where Eta sympathies are concentrated, Mr Eguibar said: "HB has told us they want to take the political lead, as Sinn Fein has done in its relation with the IRA, and no longer behave as Eta's puppet. We also hear that if HB adopts this strategy, then Eta might conclude that the armed struggle no longer serves any purpose."

Another straw in the wind was offered by the Bishop of San Sebastian, Jose Maria Setien, who said this month that talks with Eta should occur even before the gunmen declared a cease-fire. "Let's talk first and see if its possible to negotiate, and what conditions are necessary." This argument contradicts the government's view that contact is unthinkable until Eta lays down arms. Bishop Setien, who is widely respected in the region, was denounced in Madrid as a Nazi and a madman. But fellow bishops have quietly lined up behind him.

Mr Mayor Oreja has long been under pressure from his Basque allies to improve prisoners' conditions. But the realisation that concessions now will be hailed by Eta as vindication of their new line must taste like ashes in his mouth.