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After 43 years of bloodshed, Eta agrees to lay down its weapons

Basque separatists choose to end armed struggle following high-profile global peace conference

After 43 years and the loss of more than 800 lives, the Basque separatist group Eta declared early yesterday evening that it was making a "definitive cessation" of all armed activity – a statement widely interpreted in Spain as meaning one of Western Europe's most deeply ingrained and bloodiest conflicts is finally over.

As when Eta last declared a permanent ceasefire, in September 2010, yesterday's declaration was made by three hooded figures flanked by flags, filmed in a grainy video, with no mention whatsoever of the victims of the group's half-century of bombings and shootings.

However, the latest communiqué – made on the website of Gara, the newspaper traditionally considered to be the closest to Eta – was far less ambiguous than the one made 13 months ago. It contained a categorical statement of the group's "definitive, direct and firm intention" to resolve "the consequences of the conflict".

Eta's statement comes three days after a high-profile international "peace conference" took place in San Sebastian with Kofi Annan, Gerry Adams and Tony Blair's former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, as headline figures. It concluded with a five-point programme insisting on a definitive rejection of violence and calling for three-way negotiations with the French and Spanish governments.

"The conference... brought together all the elements for a complete solution of the conflict and has the support of large sectors of the Basque society and the international community," Eta's statement said.

Eta's farewell to arms also follows a highly successful police campaign against the group in recent years that cut its numbers to an estimated four- or five-dozen "active" terrorists at most. Almost 500 Eta members are in Spanish jails, and political support for its use of violence among radical Basque left-wing parties has steadily ebbed. By the time the so-called izquierda abertzale parties, spearheaded by Eta's outlawed political wing, Batasuna, made their latest call for an end to the violence on Tuesday, there had already been a year of unilateral ceasefire.

It seemed all Eta could be lacking was a leader with sufficient charisma to convince his fellow terrorists the time for armed insurrection was over: finally, political and social pressure, as well as the police campaign, have probably proved enough.

The conflict itself has marked more than two generations of Spaniards and among the victims were Admiral Carrero Blanco, widely believed to be General Franco's successor, who was killed by a car bomb in 1973, and 21 civilians killed when Eta blew up a hypermarket in Barcelona in 1987.

"This will be a democracy without terrorism but not without a memory," said Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, before paying homage to all of Eta's victims "who suffered the unjust and repulsive blows of terror. The unity of all the Spanish and Basque political parties has been the decisive factor in this outcome."

"This is the end of decades of a constant threat to Spanish society, of the death of innocents, of bombings and shots in the back on the neck," added Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who will lead Zapatero's Socialist party in November's general elections, "but it's democracy that's finally won. I just wish this day had come before."

Even Mariano Rajoy, leader of Spain's opposition Partido Popular (PP), which is widely expected to win a landslide victory next month, claimed that Eta's declaration was "great news, because there have been no political concessions made".

If elected, Rajoy will face strong pressure not to make any concessions. Hardline elements in his party have already pointed out that Eta's latest statement includes no confirmation that the group will actually disarm or disband.

"Communiqués like this one have zero credibility," claimed Esperanza Aguirre, president of Madrid's regional government, while Ignacio Cosido, a Spanish parliamentary spokesman for the PP, said, "If they're serious, they [Eta] should hand over their weapons."