Catalans protest at Eta killing of local politician

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The Independent Online

In an atmosphere of rising tension throughout Spain, Catalans mounted an unprecedented demonstration of protest yesterday at Thursday's killing - attributed to the Basque separatist group Eta - of a conservative town councillor in a suburb of Barcelona.

In an atmosphere of rising tension throughout Spain, Catalans mounted an unprecedented demonstration of protest yesterday at Thursday's killing - attributed to the Basque separatist group Eta - of a conservative town councillor in a suburb of Barcelona.

Thousands followed political leaders of all main parties down the central avenue of Barcelona in an outpouring of grief and rage rarely seen in Catalonia, which is reeling from its first Eta attack since 1994.

The march took place after the funeral of Jose Luis Ruiz Casado in a service conducted by the Archbishop of Barcelona, Ricard Maria Carles.

The Catalan protest heralds a tense weekend of protests and counter-protests over Eta's terror campaign of recent months. A broad-based Basque peace campaign Basta Ya ("That's enough") has called a mass demonstration in San Sebastian tonight, which is supported by both the ruling Popular Party and the opposition Socialists. Similar marches are planned elsewhere in Spain.

"We're just marching for our freedom, for the right not to be killed," said the veteran peace campaigner Cristina Cuesta, whose father was gunned down by Eta in 1982. "I cannot say what impact our action will have on the minds of the fanatics, but it's our way of helping people overcome their fears and strengthening our will to defend democratic institutions," Ms Cuesta said yesterday.

In an unusual step, the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, urged Spaniards to participate, saying that "social mobilisation" as well as security measures were necessary to combat terrorism.

The pro-Eta Herri Batasuna (HB) party is planning a simultaneous counter-rally in the town of Zarauz to honour Basques killed by Spanish security forces. HB condemned the Basta Ya march as sectarian - "Spain's Orange Order," according to their leader Arnaldo Otegi. Eta yesterday claimed responsibility for 12 of the 13 killings so far this year.

The autonomous Basque parliament in the regional capital, Vitoria, meanwhile faced its worst crisis for years yesterday, when the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) prepared for a motion of censure by the Popular Party (PP), the second party in the Basque country.

In an atmosphere of unprecedented bitterness, the PP is seeking to force the regional government to call early elections, which it believes would sweep the PNV from power.

The conservative PNV has long voiced aspirations to full Basque independence, even though it accepts autonomy within Spain. It has therefore never completely disavowed Eta, despite increasingly strident demands from both the PP and the Socialists to do so.

Yesterday, for the first time, the PNV blinked. The Basque regional leader Juan Ibarretxe conceded that mistakes had been made and promised "a peace initiative, a new stage in Basque politics" with more dialogue among democratic forces. But he would call elections when he saw fit, he said.

Eta's militants themselves are becoming increasingly isolated and have been forced to regroup after last week's detention of 20 political leaders and of Ignacio Gracia Arregi, suspected to be Eta's chief military commander. Those close to separatist thinking predict an extended stand-off with Madrid, which has ruled out any talks.

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