Basque government dismisses ETA ceasefire

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The Independent Online

The armed Basque separatist group ETA today announced another ceasefire, suggesting it might turn to a political process in its quest for an independent homeland.

The group is under pressure from political allies to renounce violence and has been repeatedly hit by the arrests of its leaders.

But the Basque regional government immediately dismissed the announcement as meaningless because ETA failed to renounce violence or announce its dissolution.

"It's absolutely insufficient because it does not take into account what the vast majority of Basque society demands and requires from ETA, which is that it definitively abandon terrorist activity," Basque regional interior minister Rodolfo Ares said in the first official comment on the announcement.

The new pledge from ETA, which has been fighting for an independent homeland in parts of northern Spain and southwestern France since the late 1960s, left several key questions unanswered. Besides silence on whether it will surrender its weapons, it did not say if the truce was open-ended and permanent, such as the one declared in 2006, or whether it would halt other activities such as extorting money from business leaders or recruiting members.

Nor was there any mention of whether the ceasefire could be monitored by international observers as called for on Friday by two Basque parties that back independence - ETA's outlawed political wing Batasuna and a more moderate pro-independence party called Eusko Alkartasuna.

Since late last year, divisions have been emerging and widening between ETA and the political parties that support it.

Jailed ETA veterans have also been distancing themselves from the group. And Friday's statement by the two parties was significant in that it marked the first time they had put down in writing that they wanted ETA to work toward independence through peaceful means, rather than with violence.

ETA's announcement was not a surprise in Spain - in recent months, many people in the Basque region had been expecting a ceasefire. Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba had said as recently as Friday he was expecting a ceasefire statement from ETA.

ETA's last fatal attack was in July 2009 on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca with a car bomb that killed two police officers. But the group is suspected of having shot and killed a French police officer near Paris in March in a botched car robbery.

The new announcement came in a video sent to the BBC and a statement published by the newspaper Gara - a pro-independence daily that often serves as a mouthpiece for ETA.

The video showed three masked militants sitting at a table with a sign bearing the ETA insignia behind them - a snake curled around an axe.

"ETA makes it known that as of some months ago it took the decision to no longer employ offensive armed actions," the statement said.

It added: "If the government of Spain has the will, ETA, today as in the past, is willing to agree to the democratic minimums necessary to undertake the democratic process."

It was not immediately clear what steps it is seeking or if it is specifically seeking peace talks.

The announcement came more than four years after ETA announced a ceasefire which it then termed as permanent and which led to peace talks with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government. But it ultimately went nowhere towards ending Europe's last major violent political militancy.

The truce ended with a thunderous car bomb blast in December 2006 that killed two people at Madrid airport. Since then, the government has said repeatedly it would not negotiate with ETA again, insisting the group must simply dissolve.

Since 2008, a total of 238 ETA members have been arrested in Spain, France and elsewhere, the Interior Ministry said, and over the past two years six men described as ETA's top leaders have been arrested, one after the other.

ETA, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the US, has killed more than 825 people since the late 1960s.

Mr Ares said the group's decision to announce a ceasefire today, supposedly decided upon months ago, made little sense.

"All the world can understand that decisions should be communicated when they are arrived at, and not months later," he said.