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Basques reveal burning desire for compromise: Separatists embrace Sinn Fein and move towards peace

THE MAN from Sinn Fein looked distinctly surprised when two youths ran on stage and unfurled a Spanish flag. Then they set fire to it, and Alex Maskey, a Sinn Fein councillor from Belfast, knew he had come to the right place.

The impromptu bonfire, quickly put out for the safety of the 3,000 Basque separatists packed into a basketball arena in Pamplona, brought roars of approval. So did Mr Maskey's speech and his praise for Sinn Fein's Basque equivalent, Herri Batasuna - 'you who have inspired us for so long'.

The flag-burning and message from Sinn Fein almost overshadowed what had been billed as an important initiative by Herri Batasuna - the political wing of the Eta terrorist group - that would 'send convulsions through the Basque political scene'.

In the end, the unveiling of the 'Initiative for a Social Debate on the Right to Self- Determination' caused less convulsions in the audience than the cowbells strapped to Basque dancers that performed before the event. In fact, there were almost haunting parallels in the speeches by Mr Maskey, Herri Batasuna members and Euro-MP Carmelo Landa. These were the voices of men who appeared to be seeking a face-saving way out of what Mr Landa called 'This spiral'.

Pamplona is in Navarra, which is one of Spain's 17 'semi-autonomous communities', is partly inhabited by Basques and is claimed by separatists as part of the Basque 'homeland'. To stress that claim, Herri Batasuna made Pamplona the last stop in a four-day 'Self-Determination Cavalcade' of vehicles that had meandered through the Spanish Basque country. The fact that only 3,000 people showed up in a city with a population of 200,000, is some indicaton of the party's, and Eta's fortunes.

Contacts between Sinn Fein and Herri Batasuna, widely believed to run parallel with co- operation between the IRA and Eta, are an open secret. But the Irishman was the star attraction. Mr Maskey received a rousing welcome as the Irish flag was raised alongside its Basque equivalent. One wondered whether Mr Maskey was aware of the fact that the design of the latter banner was based on the Union flag.

' I bring Sinn Fein's best wishes to your (Eta) comrades who are dispersed in various prisons,' Mr Maskey said. 'The many forms of oppression used by the Spanish state are similar to those used by the British state to deny us our rights. Many of your forms of struggle, too, are similar to ours.

'The independence struggle in Ireland has reached a new stage of intensification. We have told the British state 'we will never allow you to govern us in peace'. A negotiated settlement is the only chance for peace. Without negotiation, there will be no peace.'

The Sinn Fein representative added that: 'You have demonstrated new and inventive ways of struggle.' That may have been a reference to the 100-day-old kidnapping of a Basque businessman, Julio Iglesias Zamora.

As the Belfast councillor was speaking, thousands of Basques, sporting the blue ribbons that have become an anti- Eta symbol, were defying years of intimidation by marching through the Basque port of Bilbao to mark the 100th day of Mr Iglesias Zamora's ordeal.

Mr Iglesias Zamora's kidnapping is the second longest in the more than 30-year history of Eta - a Basque acronym for Basque Homeland and Liberty - during which it has killed around 800 people. The abduction is said to have split both Eta and Herri Batasuna, as well as causing an unprecedented surge in public protests against Eta.

Mr Landa raised expectations by rejecting 'worn-out formulas and anachronistic attitudes' and calling for 'bold, rational behaviour . . . a new era of complete democracy and peace'. In the end, his message was that the 'right to self- determination is the key to a stable, just and lasting peace'.

The Basque parliament has already approved the principle of the right to self-determination. But with a large immigrant population and growing rejection of violence, that would not necessarily mean a vote for independence. And the Basques' de facto leader, Basque Nationalist Party chief Xabier Arzalluz, has promised Spain's Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, that the self-determination issue will remain shelved during the current national legislature, scheduled to run through 1997.