Basque separatists Eta declare a 'permanent' end to violence

But Spanish politicians say announcement is heavy on rhetoric and flimsy on details

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After months of anticipation, the armed separatist group Eta yesterday declared a permanent ceasefire in order to seek a "democratic" end to its 51-year-long violent campaign in Spain for an independent Basque nation.

"Eta has decided to declare a permanent and general ceasefire which will be verifiable by the international community," the group said in a statement. "This is Eta's firm commitment towards a process to achieve a lasting resolution and towards an end to the armed confrontation."

In an online video, three Eta members appeared dressed in black, with their heads covered by white hoods and black berets. As the man in the centre finished reading the statement in Spanish, the three raised their left fists over their heads and the speaker said in Basque: "Long live a free Basque country, long live a socialist Basque country, and no stopping until we achieve independence and socialism."

Spaniards have expected a new announcement from Eta since September. During this time, Batasuna, Eta's banned political wing, which is is trying to re-enter politics, called for an end to violence. Eta's last fatal attack was in July 2009, when two policemen were killed in a bombing in Majorca.

But Spanish leaders downplayed yesterday's announcement. "The only thing that we want to read in an Eta statement is that it puts an irreversible end to the violence, and that has not happened today," Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said at a press conference.

"Eta has a distorted vision of reality and now it has manifested itself in the same arrogance, with the same language, as always. If you ask me if I feel better [about Eta] today than yesterday, I would say 'yes'. If you ask if I believe this is the end, I would tell you 'no'... Eta continues to expect that the end to the violence has a price." Mr Rubalcaba also said that it will be the Spanish security forces that confirm the ceasefire, rejecting the idea of international involvement.

Sources from the governing Basque Socialist party also called this latest announcement "insufficient", while Antonio Basagoiti, head of the conservative People's Party in the Basque country, told reporters: "New year, old statement."

The scepticism derives from decades of ceasefires that have ended in deaths. Since the 1980s, Eta has declared around 10 fixed and indefinite ceasefires. In March 2006, Eta announced a so-called permanent ceasefire that led to direct talks with the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The ceasefire and the talks, however, ended in December of that year when Eta detonated bombs in one of the parking garages at Madrid's Barajas Airport, killing two men who were sleeping in their cars.

Since then the Zapatero government has refused to engage with Eta until it disarms and renounces violence. Dozens of high-profile arrests in Spain and France have decapitated Eta's leadership and public support for the group – Batasuna won around 10 percent of the vote in local elections before being banned – has plummeted.

Basque elections are slated for May, and Batasuna leaders have called for democratic actions in an attempt to re-enter politics. "Batasuna has only two options to return to political life," Mr Rubalcaba said. "Eta either disarms or Batasuna separates definitively from [Eta]."

Like most of Eta's ceasefire declarations, yesterday's was heavy on rhetoric and flimsy on details. The government will be watching not only for Eta's commando teams which carry out bombings and assassinations, but for signs that Eta is stealing cars and weapons, and that the group continues to extort money from wealthy Basque citizens – the so-called revolutionary tax.

Since the 2006 talks failed, Eta has been split between young, hardcore believers of the armed struggle and the older veterans who are calling for a non-violent solution. Government sources say this divide, plus the lack of a strong leader to bridge it, will likely prolong any process toward disarming Eta.

Formed in 1959 by Basque students to combat the repression of the Franco dictatorship, Eta has killed around 850 people in a bid for an independent country that includes the Basque provinces in northern Spain and south-western France, and the Spanish province of Navarre.

Both the United States and the European Union consider Eta a terrorist organisation.