Spanish hold vigils urging Eta not to break terror ceasefire

THOUSANDS OF Spaniards protested yesterday against the decision of the separatist organisation Eta to end its 14-month ceasefire. Crowds gathered in town centres throughout the country to mark the end of the truce with five minutes' silence.

On the eve of a public holiday marking Spain's 1978 democratic constitution - which many Basques have never accepted - Spaniards waited, in fear and sadness, for the first new attack.

Moderate Basque nationalists tried to recover the momentum of the stalled peace process, appealing to Eta to reconsider its decision, which was announced last weekend. The conservative Basque Nationalist Party offered to help the pro-Eta Herri Batasuna party (HB) to achieve Basque sovereignty - an unprecedented concession to Eta's main demand.

"There is still time. We are trying to stop the clock. We haven't given up hope yet," said a spokesman for Elkarri, a non-party conciliation group that helped broker last year's truce. "We think Eta wanted to put itself back in the picture. Everything's uncertain, but we're trying to get the process back on course."

Those close to Eta's thinking are pessimistic. Julen de Madariaga is a founder of Eta who served long prison sentences and years of exile before becoming disenchanted with the means - though not the aims - of the organisation.

"It claims to speak for the Basque people, but really it's cut off from Basque reality, locked in an ivory tower. Their leaders are clandestine, living abroad: it's hard enough for security reasons to meet their own comrades, let alone keep in touch with what ordinary Basques are thinking and feeling. They cannot see that we long for peace," Mr Madariaga said yesterday.

Madrid sees Eta as an enemy to be vanquished, not an opponent with whom eventually to reach a settlement.

Two Eta leaders arrested in recent months - Belen Gonzalez and Jokim Etxevarria - were the organisation's contacts with government representatives. Mr Gonzalez actually attended the one meeting held between the two sides. "That was like shooting the soldier who emerges from the trench waving the white flag," said Mr Madariaga bitterly. "It was a provocation."