Eta ready to end violence and join talks

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The Independent Online

The armed Basque separatists Eta made their first conciliatory gesture for seven years yesterday, saying they were ready for talks, but the group's proposal fell short of an agreement to lay down arms.

The armed Basque separatists Eta made their first conciliatory gesture for seven years yesterday, saying they were ready for talks, but the group's proposal fell short of an agreement to lay down arms.

Spain's Socialist government and the conservative opposition played down the initiative, but in less hostile terms than previously, suggesting that parties to the conflict may be inching towards a new understanding.

"Things are moving quickly ... but we await only one letter from Eta, the one that tells us where and when they will lay down arms and abandon terrorism," said the Socialists' spokesman, Jordi Sevilla.

Eta's declaration endorsed a proposal made two months ago by the pro-Eta Batasuna party. Batasuna's leader, Arnaldo Otegi, called at a rally on 14 November for efforts "to take the conflict off the streets and on to the negotiating table".

Batasuna promised to use "exclusively political, peaceful and democratic means". That proposal was greeted with scepticism at the time because no one knew whether the armed separatists would back it.

But Eta hailed Batasuna's initiative yesterday as "the most solid proposal so far to overcome the conflict", and stated its "absolute willingness" to engage in political dialogue.

Its two-page communiqué favoured two forums for negotiation: one among Basque parties to discuss political matters, and another between Eta and the government on "demilitarising the conflict". It made no promise to abandon arms - the government's precondition for talks - but for the first time threatened no further violence.

Despite a constant rumble of low-intensity violence, Eta has not launched an attack causing deaths for over a year, the longest period in the organisation's history.

The Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, told socialists in San Sebastian on Saturday that he would talk to Batasuna - widely considered Eta's political wing and still technically banned - to try to end the conflict, if the party were "brave enough to renounce and condemn Eta terrorism". The content of Mr Zapatero's words did not differ much from those of his conservative predecessor, but their tone was friendlier.

On Thursday, Mr Zapatero rejected a plan for negotiated independence, proposed by the Basques' regional leader and approved by the Basque parliament. On Saturday, however, he insisted it was possible "to negotiate wider areas of self-government within the existing legal framework". Eta's cautious attempts to creep in from the cold recall efforts that heralded a 14-month ceasefire in 1998. But now the organisation, and Batasuna, are seeking to strike up a dialogue with the ruling Socialists, rather than the region's ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), as it did before.

Only the ruling Socialists can meet their immediate demands: for Batasuna to be unbanned, so it can participate in May's Basque regional elections; and for Eta's 700-plus prisoners - including their previous leaders - to be moved to jails nearer home.

Eta claimed responsibility for 23 attacks between September and December, including bombs in Madrid petrol stations in November, and seven small explosions nationwide in early December. It denied carrying out a bomb scare that interrupted a football match at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium on 12 December. Such action would be "counterproductive", the organisation said.

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