Basque separatist group Eta talks of disarmament 


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Basque separatist group ETA, which renounced violence last month after spending more than 40 years trying to shoot and bomb its way into achieving an independent state, now says surrendering weapons is on its agenda, a newspaper reported today.

The Basque newspaper Gara, often seen as an ETA mouthpiece, quoted two members as saying that the group - severely weakened by years of arrests - is prepared for the first time to negotiate over its arsenal.

"The issue of weapons is included on the negotiating agenda between ETA and the State and we are willing to talk about it and to undertake compromises in line with resolving all the consequences of the conflict," they said in an interview with the paper.

No such "negotiating agenda" is known to exist and the word "consequences" is often interpreted as referring to the 700-odd ETA prisoners held in Spanish and French prisons.

The members asserted that ETA has not renounced its goal of an independent Basque state. Neither was named, because ETA is classified as a terrorist organisation in Spain and naming them would presumably have led to their immediate arrest.

In a long-awaited statement on October 20, ETA declared a halt to its campaign of violence. It said it now backs only peaceful means of achieving its goal.

The group has killed 829 people since the late 1960s and is considered a terrorist group by Spain, the EU and the US.

In the interview, the ETA members said negotiations it envisions with the Spanish and French governments as part of its October 20 statement should centre on three issues: returning ETA prisoners and "Basque political exiles" to the Basque country - they seem to suggest this be done through an outright amnesty - disarming ETA and removing Spanish National Police from the region.

The Basque region has its own police force. France is mentioned because the independent homeland ETA wants includes parts of south-west France.

General elections are scheduled for November 20 in Spain, and many saw the interview as a way to plug a pro-Basque independence coalition, Amaiur, that is fielding candidates.

Ramon Jauregui, outgoing Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's chief of staff, said disarming would be a "definitive verification" that ETA has renounced violence, but said the interview was clearly aimed at reaping an "electoral premium" for Amaiur.

The conservative Popular Party, expected to win the elections, has ruled out any negotiations with ETA. It had no immediate comment on the interview.

The ETA members reiterated in the interview that the people of the Basque region have the right to decide between independence and remaining part of Spain. It is now up to pro-independence parties to pick up where ETA left off, they said. The Spanish constitution has no clause, however, that would allow the Basque country to break away and form a sovereign country.

As was the case in the October 20 statement, the two did not apologise to ETA's victims - a highly sensitive issue in Spain. They instead said both sides in the conflict have suffered.

"The armed confrontation of the last few decades has caused much suffering, without a doubt. So have ETA's actions. We are not insensitive."

The two members referred to assertions that ETA had ended violence because it had been defeated by police action as "propaganda" to weaken the pro-independence cause.

ETA's decades of attacks have made "a major contribution" to where the pro-independence movement is now at, they added.