Basques lose patience with separatist violence

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The Independent Online

San Sebastian

The two camps faced each other in front of San Sebastian cathedral, separated by riot police whose identities were concealed behind balaclava- like masks. Each side, several hundred strong, stood silently behind its banners: one in support of hostages held by the Basque separatist group, Eta, the other demanding freedom for imprisoned Eta members.

When the cathedral clock struck the quarter hour, the hostage supporters burst into applause, the counter-demonstrators into catcalls, whistles and insults. The stand-off takes place in San Sebastian several evenings a week, and reveals two things about the battle for Basque separatism, which in 27 years has claimed 800 lives, including six in a huge bomb attack last December in Madrid.

First, despite the fear that grips many Basques, more and more of them are joining peaceful demonstrations against Eta violence. Last weekend 20,000 took to the streets in Bilbao; another 20,000 marched in nearby Logrono on Wednesday. Secondly, despite calls for dialogue across the Basque political spectrum, Eta is taking an increasingly hard line.

Among the peace demonstrators in the cathedral square was Joseba Eguibar, spokesman for the region's largest political force, the conservative Basque Nationalist Movement (PNV). "There's deadlock. People are fed up. They want the politicians to find solutions and we can't," he says. "Neither Eta nor [the pro-Eta party] Herri Batasuna has a Gerry Adams, and we can't invent one."

Eta yesterday claimed responsibility for kidnapping a prison officer, Jose Antonio Ortega Lara, who disappeared two weeks ago. They still hold Jose Maria Aldaya, owner of a San Sebastian transport company, who was seized eight months ago, probably because he jibbed at paying protection money, or "revolutionary tax".

The organisation wants Madrid to bring nearer home 540 Eta prisoners who are dispersed in jails throughout Spain, and to declare them political prisoners.

In the cathedral crypt, 15 relatives of Eta prisoners are on hunger strike. Among them is Ana Gil, 29, whose brother has served eight years of a 42- year sentence for being an Eta member. He is in Seville, at the other end of the country - or, in Ana's eyes, in another country.

Recently a more intransigent Eta and Herri Batasuna leadership has emerged, supplementing bomb attacks and kidnappings with street violence. As one local commentator puts it: "In all the splits they have suffered, the winner is the one that puts the pistol on the table."

As HB is gradually losing votes - it usually wins 15 per cent in the region - its radical youth wing, Jarrai, has taken to the streets, harrying peace protests and winning recruits among marginalised youngsters, of whom half in the Basque country are unemployed.

Joseba Alvarez, the son of an Eta founder, is a San Sebastian councillor and on the executive of HB. "We Basques are denied our historic rights to independence. We told Madrid in April that if they recognised our right to self-determination and our territorial integrity, Eta would lay down their arms," he said.