French connection helps vanquish Eta: With the decline of the Basque separatists, there are plans afoot for an amnesty, Phil Davison writes

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The Independent Online
THIS is the revolution of the Basque Country. We are fighting for your liberty. You will therefore have to contribute the sum of 20m pesetas. Get in touch with Sr Otxia through the known channels. If you decline, we will find you, wherever you are. Signed: Euskadi Ta Askaduna (Eta).

It was a common letter, as it turns out, though no one admitted it until quite recently. Typewritten, stamped with the Eta separatist group's axe and serpent seal, and received in the early Eighties by Basque businessmen, hoteliers, anyone the Basque group, Eta, thought could afford to pay. Many did not. Many did. No one will ever know the ratio. Some went directly to the Basque region of France to meet 'Mr Otxia' and try to talk down the price. Some sold out and moved elsewhere.

Others, such as the businessman Luis Olarra, took out advertisements in newspapers essentially telling the separatists to take a running jump.

Others paid out of fear. Eta guerrillas, mostly from the relative safety of France, began carrying out kidnappings, arson, even cold-blooded murders of their own people, to get their message across and ensure their revenue - at its high point estimated at around dollars 20m ( pounds 13m) a 'campaign,' with several 'campaigns' a year.

When the big businessmen either held back or their funds were not enough, the letters went to lawyers, doctors, bar-owners, hairdressers, anyone who might have cash flow, in what most Basques, a few even then, and most of them openly now, admit was an extortion racket not unlike those of the Sicilian Mafia or the Chicago of Al Capone.

While the big entrepreneurs were asked in the Eighties for up to 30m pesetas a time (around pounds 170,000 these days), the small-timers were asked for whatever they could come up with, a pounds 1,000 down, maybe some more in instalments. Those who refused found their premises burnt down, their windows broken, occasionally their kneecaps shot through in the style favoured by the Irish counterparts with whom they liaised but whom they despised as uncultured and gross. For Eta, it was easy money compared with the bank robberies they had often bungled in earlier years.

The letters have stopped. Threats remain, but few Basques bow to them. Eta, it is generally agreed in Spain's Basque Country, is finished. Few doubt that its remaining hard core, even if disillusioned, trapped or isolated, will pop up for some time yet to kill a Guardia Civil, perhaps a passing mother and child in the name of the 'cause' that gave the group its name, Basque Liberty and Homeland.

It is accused of killing more than 740 people in its 37-year existence. But, for the first time since it was founded in 1956, you will hear Basques, over their beloved percebes (goose barnacles) and vino claro (rose) publicly and fearlessly denounce the men they used to fear. Eta's time, they say, has come and gone.

'Basically, Eta is finished,' the Basque nationalist leader Xabier Arzalluz told the Independent.

'It might continue like Grapo (a smaller guerrilla group) occasionally killing a policeman or planting a bomb. But the vast majority within Eta have come to the conclusion that times have changed, not only from the political point of view, but from the question of logistics.

'They used to operate mainly from the Basque region of France. Now, the (Spanish) Guardia Civil crosses the border and operates up there at will. Also, their so-called revolutionary world has collapsed, with the fall of the Soviet Union, what you might call socialism as the motor of such movements. I think now it's a problem of finding a solution in which everyone can save face.'

The 'saving face' formula would presumably involve an amnesty for underground Eta leaders, many of them in South America; their rehabilitation into civilian politics, presumably through Eta's political wing, Herri Batasuna; and the gradual release of around 500 Eta prisoners serving longer-than-life jail terms for terrorist killings.

Mr Arzalluz says Basques felt the same sense of 'horror' when Eta blew civilians to pieces in streets around Spain as Britons felt over recent IRA attacks in London. As always, however, he was quick to add that Eta had initially been justified by its resistance to the Franco dictatorship.

What he did not say was that 80 per cent of Eta's attacks have come since Franco died and Spain turned to democracy. It was the sight of dismembered children, blown to bits by Eta bombs around the country, that turned even strong Basque nationalists against the terrorists in the mid- Eighties.

A change in French policy last year, after many years for which history may yet judge not only Francois Mitterrand but his predecessors, finally deprived Eta of the south-western French bases where they used to live openly and freely.

A March 1992 raid at Bidart, near Bayonne, in which French police and the Spanish Guardia Civil jointly captured Eta's half-dozen leaders, is considered to have been the final nail in Eta's coffin. Among those taken were Eta leader Francisco Mugica, alias Pakito, and Jose Maria Arregui, alias Fitti or Fittipaldi. In the first decision of its kind, a French court last week accepted Spain's call for their extradition.

But they will first have to serve prison terms in France, probably up to 10 years each. They and the rest of the remaining leadership were described as low-level 'sergeants.'

The determination of successive governments under Felipe Gonzalez was seen as crucial in the defeat of Eta, which was pursued ruthlessly by the Guardia Civil, not always playing by gentlemanly rules. Finally, the Basques' own police, the Ertzaintza, surprised many by weeding out Eta supporters and demonstrating clearly that the local authorities, too, were opposed to the terrorists.

While the weight of Eta on the Basque national conscience was always a difficult one to quantify, its disappearance is tangible. Basques have taken part in huge silent peace marches and when they stood up to be counted, they realised they were the vast majority.

'Eta distorted the image of Basques, both in the rest of Spain and in the world,' Gorka, a fellow drinker in a Bilbao bar told me in anything but sotto voce.

'It was a false image. Eighty-five percent of Basques were always opposed to Eta. Polls show only around 7 per cent backed the violence, with a similar additional number that you might call sympathisers.' Gorka's spontaneous statistics were remarkably accurate.

(Photograph and map omitted)