Basque leader fails to oppose return to violence

SPANISH POLITICAL parties of the right and left closed ranks yesterday in response to the government's call for unity against terrorism after Sunday's announcement by Eta Basque separatists that their 14-month ceasefire was over.

All except one. Arnaldo Otegi, leader of Eta's political wing, Herri Batasuna (HB), failed to commit himself.

Spain's nearest equivalent of Gerry Adams had the hopes of many pinned on him for an end to 30 years of combat. But having kept silent during the blanket condemnations that reverberated throughout Sunday, Mr Otegi finally spoke yesterday. He made no mention of Eta, only urging Basques to keep calm at this "enormously delicate moment".

Mr Otegi's non-committal stance reflects the dilemma confronting perhaps the loneliest man in Spanish politics. Does this former Eta combatant join the chorus of condemnation and break from his armed comrades? Or does he back them and dash a nation's hopes that he could lead Basque gunmen to the negotiating table?

At his press conference yesterday, Mr Otegi had harsh words for the party with whom HB had built bridges - the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). He accused them of political irresponsibility and lacking courage for not backing the demand for full independence. To most Spaniards, such censure of the one party in Spain to lend HB support and credibility is incomprehensible. For it was the party that drew HB from its self-imposed ghetto, prompting Eta to declare a ceasefire in September last year.

HB's wider political alliance, Euskual Herritarok (EH), or Basques Together, expressed dismay both at Eta's threat to take up arms again and at HB's failure to condemn it. "Our illusions are broken," an EH spokeswoman said. "How can we consider the possibility of a constitutional process leading to an independent Basque country? It's unreal."

And that is the point. As well as repudiating violence, Spain's democratic parties, from socialists to the ruling, conservative Popular Party and most Basque parties, oppose Eta's demand for a Basque country independent from Madrid and Paris - Eta's concept of a free Euskadi includes French territory.

The socialist leader, Joaquin Almunia said yesterday that he was ready to join the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, in planning the broadest consensus to confront and isolate the gunmen. The Interior Minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, confirmed that security was being tightened; he warned that Eta, though weakened militarily, was still able to kill.

The problem is that talk of isolation, security alerts and unity against violence takes everyone back to square one. Cautious hopes over the last 14 months that 30 years of stalemate and empty rhetoric were ending have been dashed. No one knows what to do - not even Mr Otegi, who seemed most attuned to both sides' yearning for a solution - except brace themselves for the next attack.