The top-secret route that has led to peace talks

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Behind Eta's dramatic ceasefire lies a secret process of contacts, "temperature taking" and confidence building among Basque nationalists, Socialists and a Belfast priest that goes back years.

Those who painstakingly prepared the ground for this week's announcement took enormous precautions to shield their meetings from public gaze, conscious that the least slip would prompt an outcry and possibly ruin all their work.

Key figures in the process were the Basque Socialist leader Jesus Eguiguren, and Josu Urrutokoetxea, better known as Josu Ternera, veteran Eta leader and erstwhile Batasuna MP. Mr Eguiguren quietly built a circle of contacts among Basque radicals, and kept the government informed.

Mr Ternera was a risky interlocutor: not only was he a member of the banned Batasuna party, he had gone into hiding to elude capture by Interpol who wanted him for terrorism. If Mr Ternera, with his authority within the organisation, is the man most responsible for bringing Eta to the negotiating table, Mr Eguiguren found the people to talk to and got Socialists to listen.

The rapprochement began during the Aznar government, when Arnaldo Otegi, leader of Batasuna, and Mr Eguiguren started secret meetings.

Eta sent a letter to the Prime Minister asking for talks. The Belfast priest Alec Reid, veteran of the Irish peace process, persuaded Eta there were no military solutions. "I explained the lessons we learned in Ireland," the Rev Reid said yesterday in Bilbao.

The Prime Minister said he was ready to accept more Basque autonomy, if the guns were silenced.