Eta calls a halt to decades of bloodshed

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The Basque separatist organisation Eta has declared a permanent ceasefire, starting tomorrow, that would, if fulfilled, end decades of armed struggle for independence from Spain, and pave the way for a negotiated peace.

"Our aim is to promote a democratic process in the Basque country and to build a new framework in which our rights as a people will be recognised," said a woman's voice that accompanied a video broadcast on Basque regional television yesterday. The video showed three masked figures wearing the black Basque beret. They sat behind a cloth-covered table, with flags behind them bearing Eta's symbol of a hatchet and serpent.

The long-anticipated initiative marks a turning point in Basque relations with Madrid, and opens the way to solving the most intractable problem facing Spanish governments past and present. Since coming to power two years ago, Spain's socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has made ending Basque violence his top priority: if successful, he will go down as the man who solved western Europe's last armed separatist conflict.

"Eta has shown its desire and will for the process now begun to reach a conclusion and thus achieve true democracy in the Basque country, overcoming long years of violence and constructing a peace based on justice," the statement said.

The unprecedented announcement was posted on the website of the radical nationalist Gara newspaper, and dominated every relevant website and media outlet in Spain. The news was greeted with joy and optimism among Basques, and welcomed by the Madrid government as "good news for Spaniards".

Mr Zapatero told MPs he would embark on the road ahead "slowly and with prudence". He warned: "After so many years of horror and terror, it will be a long and difficult process."

With varying degrees of scepticism, the nation has been waiting for Eta to step in from the cold, but yesterday's statement caught everyone on the hop. The opposition Popular Party, furious that Mr Zapatero might succeed where their former prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, failed, dismissed the statement: "It's not surprising that Eta finally responded to all the concessions that Zapatero has made," snapped Maria San Gil, leader of the PP in the Basque country.

"They've renounced nothing. It's just a pause," said the PP's leader, Mariano Rajoy.

The Basque regional president, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, a conservative nationalist, hailed the statement with "enormous relief ... It opens a window of hope that no one must ever close."

Mr Zapatero has been preparing this moment for two years, keeping personal control over the delicate process of rapprochement launched when he became Prime Minister in 2004. He kept up police pressure on terrorist suspects, and maintained the ban on Eta's political wing, Batasuna. But Mr Zapatero opened the door by saying he would talk to Eta if the armed men and women renounced violence. Parliament ratified that position, in the teeth of conservative opposition. Last month, Mr Zapatero hinted that things were moving: "We are approaching the beginning of the end of Eta," he said.

The signals were blurred by Eta's recent campaign of low-level violence and intimidation. The organisation has set off several small bombs in recent weeks, and sent letters to Basque businessmen threatening reprisals if they didn't pay protection money, or "revolutionary tax". The PP berated Mr Zapatero for "capitulating" to terrorism, but those close to Basque radicals considered Eta's threatening "background noise" was a tactic to lift the organisation's profile as a prelude to talks.

Terrorism as a political strategy was doomed on 11 March 2004 when the Madrid train bombers killed 192 and sickened the nation. Eta finally recognised that its aspiration for an independent homeland could be advanced only through non-violent means. The government, meanwhile, acknowledged that the organisation could never be defeated through repression alone. And in Catalonia, the tortuous but bloodless process towards greater autonomy, involving all parties, has provided an inspiration to Basques.

The road to peace

* 1959 Eta, meaning Basque homeland and freedom, is founded under Franco to fight for self-rule

* 1968 Eta carries out first planned killing - of police chief in San Sebastian

* 1973 Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco killed by Eta bomb in Madrid

* 1980 Eta's bloodiest year: nearly 100 killed - despite Spain's return to democracy

* September 1985 First Eta car bomb in Madrid. US tourist is killed

* June 1987 Eta's deadlist attack so far - 21 shoppers killed by bomb in Barcelona supermarket. Eta apologises for "mistake"

* 21 November 2000 A former minister, Ernest Lluch, killed in Barcelona

* 11 March 2004 Train bombings in Madrid kill 191 and are initially blamed on Eta. Spaniards turn further against Eta's use of violence

* 10 October 2004 New socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, appeals to Eta to give up the fight following arrest of its suspected leader

* 17 May 2004 Spain's parliament gives government permission to open peace talks with Eta if it lays down its arms

* 22 March 2006 Eta declares a permanent ceasefire from 24 March