Catalan prime minister sacked after secret talks with Eta

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The prime minister of Catalonia, Josep Lluis Carod Rovira, was forced to resign yesterday barely a month after the formation of a historic left-wing coalition in the region, because he held secret talks with Eta separatists.

Pasqual Maragall, Catalonia's Socialist President, said yesterday he had scrapped the post of number two previously occupied by Mr Carod. He said he would take over most of the powers himself and redistribute the rest among other members of his government. Mr Carod, who leads the pro-independence Republican Left party, admitted on Monday he had met Eta leaders in France three weeks ago but had not reached any agreement with them. He said that he felt justified in exploring possibilities of a truce, but apologised for not telling Mr Maragall.

Mr Carod's gaffe has dealt a blow to the credibility of Mr Maragall as the Socialist President of Catalonia's tripartite coalition, which also includes a Green-Communist alliance. The dispute is an embarrassment to socialists nationwide, who are trailing the ruling Popular Party ahead of elections on 14 march.

Mr Maragall said Mr Carod "had made a serious mistake that damages the Catalan government, but without malicious intent". Mr Maragall said his former deputy would remain in the Catalan ruling executive, stripped of all responsibilities.

Mr Carod was ordered to appear in the regional parliament tomorrow to apologise publicly to the Catalan and the Spanish governments as the only way "to recover credibility". But Mr Maragall added that, without Mr Carod, "this government would not exist".

Mr Carod admitted attending a secret meeting with Eta leaders after a report appeared in a Madrid newspaper on Monday. The news created a storm of conservative opposition, and infuriated the Socialist leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who promptly urged Mr Maragall to sack Mr Carod. The Socialists oppose any dialogue with armed Eta members, whom they consider terrorists.

Mr Maragall's compromise stratagem - accepting Mr Carod's resignation but keeping him in the cabinet - shores up the Catalan government. But it will create serious conflicts within Spain's Socialists and threatens to weaken the position of Mr Zapatero.

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