Basque separatists signal end to 35 years of conflict

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Spain's banned Batasuna party, widely considered the political mouthpiece of the armed Basque separatist group Eta, offered last night to open a process of negotiations and dialogue to achieve peace in the Basque country.

Spain's banned Batasuna party, widely considered the political mouthpiece of the armed Basque separatist group Eta, offered last night to open a process of negotiations and dialogue to achieve peace in the Basque country.

The plan announced by Batasuna calls for an agreement between Eta and Spain and France on demilitarising the 35-year conflict and a referendum in the Basque country on its future. "It's more difficult to make peace sometimes than to make war. To make peace means getting the political and armed conflict off the streets and taking it to the negotiating table," Batasuna's leader Arnaldo Otegi, a former Eta hitman, told a rally in San Sebastian.

"To make peace means ... even going so far in the end as to seek the involvement of our enemies. We know it well, we are prepared, we accept it, we have a firm commitment to do it," Mr Otegi told up to 10,000 supporters in a sports stadium.

Batasuna's dramatic plea is the party's most important political gesture since it was banned nearly two years ago. Batasuna stopped short of condemning violence, and Mr Otegi did not call for Eta to lay down arms. But his assertion that peace was now the priority, and his promise to stick to democratic methods breaks from the usual belligerent rhetoric and could bring a truce nearer.

There has been nothing comparable since 1998 when similar gestures heralded a 14-month Eta truce. Batasuna leaders recognised for the first time the "current reality" that Navarra, the Basque country and the French Basque region were three separate areas. Hitherto they have insisted as a condition for talks that the three regions formed an indivisible Basque homeland.

But observers warned that Batasuna's declaration, albeit a first step towards ending the conflict, could easily falter and yield to resumed violence. Batasuna is not Eta. No one expects Eta to lay down arms just yet. The separatist movement is convulsed by debates between conciliators and hardliners. The internal debate was revealed by a letter last month from six veteran Eta leaders in prison to the organisation's high command, urging an end to armed struggle. About 100 Eta leaders have been detained in police raids, devastating the organisation and demoralising its militants.

The government could simply rebuff the gesture. "Batasuna has little bargaining power and the government could just tell it to get lost," said Gorka Espiau of the pro-dialogue group, Elkarri. "But that risks strengthening the hardliners and producing more Eta violence in the medium term. Or Madrid could seize this moment of Batasuna's weakness as an opportunity to help the party back to democratic political activity."

A spokesman for the ruling Socialists, was wary of Batasuna's proposals: "There are those in the radical world who talk of dialogue among everyone. They must be reminded that ... in a democracy, you can only listen to the voices of those who talk, and not to guns."

Yesterday's meeting was technically illegal, and Spain's conservative opposition Popular Party called for it to be banned. But the fact that the gathering was tolerated ­ and extensively trailed in the Basque media throughout the weekend ­ shows how Spain's political climate has changed since the 11 March train bombings and the election three days later of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government.

Mr Zapatero has muted the fierce anti-Basque rhetoric of his predecessor Jose Maria Aznar, but he still refuses to talk to Eta until it renounces violence. Basque Socialists meanwhile, are reported to have had talks with Batasuna leaders, contacts that both sides deny.

The Socialist mayor of San Sebastian, Odon Elorza, urged Mr Zapatero to consider moving hundreds of Basque prisoners jailed throughout Spain to prisons nearer home, and to consider lifting the ban on Batasuna if the party promised to stick to democratic activities.

A struggle for independence

1959 Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom) founded

1968 First killing, of a policeman, in San Sebastian

1973 ETA kills PM, Luis Carrero Blanco, in Madrid

1978 Political wing, Herri Batasuna, set up

1980 ETA's bloodiest year ­ nearly 100 killed.

1987 ETA apologises after bomb left in Barcelona supermarket kills 21.

1995 Car bomb attempt on life of opposition leader (later PM) Jose Maria Aznar

1997 Kidnapping and murder of Basque councillor Miguel Angel Blanco.

19 199798 ETA announces truce

1999 ETA calls off ceasefire

2001 Bomb in Madrid injures 100. Judge shot in Bilbao.

2003 Supreme Court outlaws Herri Batasuna. Two policemen killed by car bomb.

2004 ETA leader Mikel Antza arrested