A leading Socialist was shot dead in the Basque city of San Sebastian yesterday, rekindling the terrorism issue less than a month before the general elections. The attack, attributed to ETA, the Basque separatist organisation, came in the midst of a row between Spain and Belgium over Brussels' refusal to extradite two ETA suspects.
The attack on Fernando Mugica, 61, a leader of the Basque Socialist Party (PSE) and the brother of a former Socialist minister, fulfils the worst fears of Felipe Gonzalez's government, which has been warning for weeks of a probable ETA strike during the run-up to the elections on 3 March.
As with most of ETA's political targets, Mugica was carefully chosen. A lawyer and leading Socialist parliamentary candidate for the Basque region of Guipuzcoa, he had strongly advocated the policy of dispersing ETA prisoners throughout Spain in an attempt to break their formidable solidarity and encourage them to abandon the cause in exchange for early freedom or "reinsertion".
Enrique Mugica, the victim's brother, had been responsible for introducing the policy of dispersal when Justice Minister between 1988 and 1991. ETA has always resisted the policy and in recent weeks intensified demands that 540 ETA prisoners spread throughout the country be brought to jails nearer their homes and families.
Two weeks ago ETA kidnapped a Logrono prison officer, Jose Antonio Ortega Lara, saying he would be released only if the government met its demands on prisoners' rights. Yesterday's attack is seen as ETA's riposte to the government stance. The Socialist government's tough policy has received a kick in the teeth on the international front too. Belgium enraged Madrid on Monday by suspending extradition proceedings against two ETA suspects in a Belgian jail and granting them provisional freedom. Spain responded by breaking juridical co-operation with Belgium, saying the decision flew in the face of pan-European norms on security co-operation. The Foreign Minister, Carlos Westendorp, called the Belgian ambassador in Madrid to his ministry for a wigging.
Belgium says the extradition request had been poorly formulated but does not rule out it may in due course be approved. The suspects, Luis Moreno Ramajo and his wife, Raquel Garcia Arranz, are accused of giving shelter and transport to members of ETA's Viscaya Command, enabling them to kill a policeman and attempt another assassination.
Spain has been trying to obtain the extradition of hundreds of ETA suspects who fled abroad. The authorities are particularly keen to detain "Antxon", a former ETA leader who has been living in the Dominican Republic for years and who recently condemned the current ETA leadership for being too extreme.
Yesterday's attack is the first important political killing since that of the conservative Popular Party's leader in the Basque country, Gregorio Ordonez, over a year ago. The PP leader, Jose Maria Aznar, tipped to succeed Mr Gonzalez, escaped a car-bomb attack in April. In August police foiled a plot against King Juan Carlos, and in December a car-bomb in Madrid killed six people.