Spain gripped by mass protest against the Eta gunmen

Two million join rallies in Madrid and Barcelona as victim is buried
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The Independent Online
The unprecedented tidal wave of grief and anger that has engulfed Spain in recent days erupted again yesterday with the funeral of Miguel Angel Blanco, the young local politician shot dead last week by Eta gunmen.

Last night, more than 2 million anti-Eta protesters filled Madrid and Barcelona in a mobilisation that surpassed even that of 23 February 1981, which followed a fascist coup attempt.

The streets of the capital were flooded with a fervent ocean of people even before the demonstration, led by the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, moved off. In a rare televised address to the nation, King Juan Carlos said: "The death of Miguel Angel has not been in vain in the struggle for democracy, liberty and human rights."

But while most of the gatherings were peaceful, the public backlash against Eta turned violent in the Basque country.

In San Sebastian, hundreds of anti-Eta protesters hurled eggs and rocks at offices and a bar used by the rebels' political wing, Herri Batasuna. The people inside retaliated with Molotov cocktails, police said, and at least two people were reported injured. Similar incidents took place in Bilbao.

Earlier in the day, Mr Aznar, with the heir to the throne Prince Felipe, cabinet ministers, three former prime ministers, military top brass and union leaders, joined thousands in the Basque village of Ermua for Blanco's funeral, led by the Bishop of Bilbao.

Special trains were laid on to bring people from throughout the Basque country to this hamlet - so insignificant that its railway halt bears no name. Mourners gathered in the drizzle outside the village church, with its austere facade and its coral-and-turquoise-clad plaster Virgin within, grieving quietly.

There were, perhaps, fewer tears than in the days since Miguel - as chanting multitudes across the land have taken to calling him - was found dying face down in a wood, with two bullets in his skull, on Saturday.

Accumulated exhaustion and anxiety marked every mourner's face. The young man's mother, sister and fiancee almost collapsed with grief as they made their way to the church through applauding crowds. The elderly man wearing his wide black Basque beret, who had put me off at the right station, said: "I had to come today. I did not accompany my children and grandchildren to Saturday's big demonstration in Bilbao, because my breathing is bad."

He added: "These assassins have destroyed everything."

The Bishop of Bilbao, Ricardo Blasquez, said: "Terrorism has shown its face, cold and rapacious."

The midday start was marked by a nationwide stoppage of 10 minutes, extended to an hour in the Basque country, with mass silent assemblies in town squares throughout the country.

The cast of dignitaries, worthy of a state funeral, included Adolfo Suarez, Calvo Sotelo and Felipe Gonzalez - the three former prime ministers who between them guided Spain from dictatorship to democracy. They led the crowd that followed the cortege for two miles through the narrow streets up into the misty pine-covered hillside, gashed by a vast slate quarry, to the cemetery.

Constant rhythmic clapping and shouts of "Miguel s, Eta no", and "asesinos!" reverberated off the black-bedecked blocks of flats. Some mourners held their hands behind their necks - indicating Eta's preferred target - and shouted "Here's my neck". This challenge to the gunmen was echoed by a poster hung from the locked gates of a railway-side cement works: "We are all Miguel Angel."

Spaniards have become used to Eta terrorism. A steady stream of attacks on politicians, judges, policemen and ordinary folk in the wrong place at the wrong time has over the years become absorbed into the political landscape. More than 800 have been killed since Basque separatists took up arms against Franco in the mid-Sixties - 12 since Mr Aznar came to power in March last year. Mr Aznar himself miraculously escaped a car-bomb attack that left his armour- plated Audi a smouldering heap.

Government measures to combat Basque terrorism have ranged from using underground death squads to attempts at dialogue. The Basque country has, meanwhile, achieved more autonomy than any region in Europe. Nothing has had much effect on Eta. Immune both to repression and blandishment, it remains intact and effective, conserving a hard core of support. The pro- Eta Herri Batasuna (HB) party wins up to 15 per cent of the Basque vote.

Now, suddenly, for the first time, the accumulated pain and fury erupted at the weekend in a universal cry of "Basta ya!" - "enough". It is an extraordinary moment.

The cold-blooded violence of Blanco's death is partly the reason. Eta seized a young councillor from a small working-class community and threatened to kill him within 24 hours. And they did.

They had demanded the relocation of Eta prisoners nearer the Basque country, something the government refuses to do. Eta kidnapped the prison officer Jose Antonio Ortega Lara 18 months ago and kept him in an underground cell for the same reason.

When civil guardsmen freed Mr Ortega Lara less than a fortnight ago, from what is called in Basque "zulo", which means "hole", his condition - stooped, emaciated and barely conscious - shocked the nation and tempered the relief at his release. The horror of Blanco's death, days later, was too much to bear.

Government reactions have been cautious. They have called for the "isolation" of HB but not, so far, its banning. Talks, however, covert and mediated, are unthinkable for the moment. A military clampdown would be useless and counter-productive.

But in conditions where all options have been tried and have failed, a transcendent new factor has emerged. Spaniards have risen and cast off their fear.