Hopes grow for settlement with Eta

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The Independent Online
THE SPANISH government said for the first time yesterday that it was prepared to talk to Herri Batasuna after the elections, without demanding that the pro-Eta party condemns violence. That is a breakthrough, on a par with the British government's decision to engage directly with Sinn Fein. Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government now says only that HB "must accept the democratic rules of the game".

Peace is returning slowly to the Basque heartland and, in its first show of strength since Eta separatists called a ceasefire nearly a month ago, the organisation's political wing has been demanding the release of 560 prisoners in jail for terrorist offences. In San Sebastian this week, thousands of HB supporters chanted: "Amnesty for the prisoners!" at a 12,000-strong rally. Newly named Euskal Herritarrok, (Basques Together) for the regional elections on 25 October, their campaign mirrors Sinn Fein's post ceasefire tactics in Ulster.

Given pride of place at Monday's rally were relatives of Eta prisoners dispersed in jails throughout Spain. The prisoners' families are HB's backbone, but what was unprecedented was the sea of green banners bearing the slogan "Time for Solutions", a homage to the Irish peace process that inspired Eta's decision to halt more than 30 years of hostilities.

Relief and hope has flooded the Basque country since that moment, and is palpable on the streets of San Sebastian. "It's a moment of hope and enthusiasm. In Ireland they've shown the way towards a negotiated solution. We should follow their example," said Andoni, a teacher who joined the throng.

But some of the prisoners' relatives believe it is too early to drop their guard. Lourdes's brother Jon has been in jail in Almeria, in Andalusia, for 14 years. Rosi's son Bitor has served 12 years there. Each has decades still to serve.

The two women try to visit every weekend. "But it's more than 1,000km away. It's unjust. We want our men home. The government has an obligation to let prisoners serve their time near their homes." They are afraid the government in Madrid will let them down.

HB wins between 13 and 16 per cent of the Basque vote, comparable to Sinn Fein's support in Northern Ireland.

The Basque party's vote, set to rise in what will amount to a referendum on the ceasefire, has declined in recent years. As Eta gunmen picked off victim after victim, even supporters turned away.

Last year, HB put out feelers to the region's ruling conservative Basque Nationalist Party. Until then it had insisted it would talk only to Madrid. But as Sinn Fein found with John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, local rapprochement broke the isolation, leading to possible national contact.

Madrid is expected soon to make a gesture on Eta prisoners, thus removing one of the most pressing obstacles to a negotiated peace.