Zapatero admits 'clear mistake' in trying to negotiate with Eta

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The Independent Online

Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, has issued a remarkable apology for putting his faith in the peace process with Basque separatists, after a deadly car bombing that has caused outrage.

With Spain divided as never before over how to deal with armed Basque separatists following a bomb that killed two people in Madrid, shattering immediate hopes for peace, Mr Zapatero faced hostile opposition in his first parliamentary appearance since the blast. The premier admitted that he had made a "clear mistake" in his policy towards Eta.

"I want to recognise the clear mistake I made before the Spanish people, " he said in apparent recognition that he is now fighting for his political future. He was referring to his statement 24 hours before the bombing on 30 December that within a year Spain would be nearer an end to terrorism. "Eta, with its brutal attack, broke negotiations ... it chose the path of terror."

In 40 years of fighting Basque terrorism, no Spanish government has been harmed so badly by Eta's armed action as Mr Zapatero's since the attack at Madrid's Barajas airport. Yesterday's confrontation may signal the start of his political decline.

Mr Zapatero recognised the strength of feeling against him by proposing to establish a "great democratic national consensus ... to confront together the challenge of terrorism". He did not rule out future talks with Eta, but stressed: "There'll be no dialogue with violence: never, never."

The opposition Popular Party (PP) leader, Mariano Rajoy, dismissed Mr Zapatero's speech as "empty words, vague phrases", and accused the Prime Minister of "catastrophic" failure, adding: "He's made not just one mistake, but so many he's tripped over them".

The PP has harried the Socialist government to junk its policy of seeking talks with Eta, proposing instead a cross-party alliance pledged to destroy the armed separatist organisation by force.

Mr Zapatero has never succeeded in forging the bipartisan approach to Basque terrorism that his predecessors enjoyed. The PP criticised him fiercely from day one of his government, accusing him of "betraying the dead" by planning talks with Eta if the separatists renounced violence for good.

Right-wing elements usually kept on a tight leash in the PP have latterly warned in language reminiscent of Franco's dictatorship that Spain might disintegrate if a settlement is eventually reached with Eta. But millions of Spaniards agree with Mr Rajoy that no decent democrat should have any truck with Eta.

The Prime Minister's credibility plunged the moment the bomb destroyed Eta's ceasefire, declared last March. He did not visit the site for five days, prompting Mr Rajoy to taunt: "Spain is a ship adrift without a rudder."