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Basque Separatists Halt Campaign of Violence

by John Burns, The New York Times, October 21, 2011

By issuing their demand for peace in the Basque heartland, and effectively dictating to ETA the words of its concession by calling for “the definitive cessation of all armed action,” the negotiators effectively made it possible for ETA’s leaders to present themselves as responding to an international push for peace, rather than to the French and Spanish security crackdowns.

(John Burns as a newbie reporter in New Delhi wrote a story in 1996 about Prabakaran being a new Pol Pot that was an indication of a new US policy toward Sri Lanka. Note the cynical tone here.)

LONDON — After more than 40 years of violent struggle for independence in the traditional Basque homeland in Spain and France, the separatist group ETA declared a unilateral end to its campaign of bombings and shootings on Thursday, saying it wished to seize a “historical opportunity to reach a just and democratic resolution to an age-old political conflict.”

The group’s announcement of “the definite cessation of its military activity,” and its appeal for a “direct dialogue” with the governments in Madrid and Paris, came in the form of a written statement and an accompanying video posted online, which were sent to news organizations.

The renunciation of armed struggle went a step further than previous cease-fires the group has declared, and often broken, over the years. It was perhaps an acknowledgment that the group had been badly weakened by a crackdown by Spanish and French security forces.

Spanish leaders, facing a debt crisis and severe austerity measures, welcomed the rare bit of good news with relief and cautious optimism.

“The state of law today triumphs,” said Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. “Our democracy will be one without terrorism, but not without memory,” he added, recalling the 829 people killed by ETA over more than four decades.

Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the opposition Popular Party, called the announcement “good news,” with the caveat that “the tranquillity of Spaniards will only be complete when the full dismantling of ETA has occurred.”

In fact, the statement fails to meet many of Spain’s longtime demands — ETA did not say it would disarm, dissolve or renounce the goal of independence — and experts cautioned that many problems would have to be resolved before peace could be secured.

Far from dissolving, ETA, which is considered a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, made it plain that it saw itself, and its political wing, as a major players in future negotiations on a tangle of complex issues arising from the prolonged violence.

Those issues include demands for the release of hundreds of Basque militants imprisoned in French and Spanish jails, including top-ranking figures from the leadership of ETA and Batasuna, a banned political party that has been closely associated with ETA. Just as thorny will be issues relating to the disarming of ETA and the decommissioning of its arms and explosives, the experts said, and the reintegration of former militants into everyday life.

The declaration also appeared to fall short of guaranteeing that the armed struggle would never resume.

The ETA video showed the statement being read in Spanish by one of three ETA activists seated at a table flanked by Basque nationalist banners, wearing black berets and capes, and white masks. Intermediaries with recent access to ETA leaders identified the three as members of the group’s General Command.

The commanders emphatically reasserted the goal of independence, and at the end of the video joined in traditional ETA rallying cries delivered with clenched-fist salutes. “The fight for independence for the Basque homeland goes on!” they cried.

Another concern centered on the fact that the announcement was made in what amounted to a political void. Mr. Zapatero’s Socialist government and the center-right Popular Party, a strong favorite to win a general election on Nov. 20, appeared to have played no part in the negotiations leading to the announcement. The Popular Party has strongly opposed any quick peace deal, insisting that ETA not only renounce its violence and disarm, but also dissolve on terms to be negotiated with the authorities in Madrid.

Instead, the declaration followed an appeal to ETA by a group of informal peace negotiators who met this week in San Sebastián, the political center of the main Basque homeland in Spain. The group included Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations; Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister; and Gerry Adams, the leader of the Irish nationalist group Sinn Fein, which has long had ties to ETA and has itself managed a metamorphosis from armed to political struggle.

The group issued a communiqué on Monday, saying it was “time to end, and possible to end, the last armed confrontation in Europe.”

Although home to fewer than 3 million of Spain’s 46 million people, the Basque region has a disproportionate economic importance as a center of industry, mining and culture. Bilbao, one of Spain’s largest cities, with close to a million people, has a Basque majority, and is home to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, one of Europe’s most celebrated centers for modern art. San Sebastián is world renowned for its cutting-edge cuisine.

But Spanish economists have estimated the investment lost in recent years because of the violence at more than a billion dollars. Spain and France have deployed thousands of anti-terrorist police officers, as well as undercover intelligence agents. Until ETA’s power was undercut by the security crackdown, it was common for businesses to have to pay a hefty “revolutionary tax” to the militants.

ETA has made a succession of previous cease-fire declarations that have been quickly abandoned, most egregiously in 2006, when a truce with the Zapatero government collapsed amid failed negotiations and ETA militants mounted a car bomb attack at Madrid’s main international airport, killing two people.

Against this history, some Spanish commentators said the declaration amounted to a recognition by ETA’s commanders that the group had effectively been routed by the security crackdown. With hundreds of its activists rounded up and imprisoned, some estimates have said that ETA has recently had only 50 active militants capable of mounting attacks.

ETA’s statement also ignored another demand often made by Madrid, offering no apology to the victims of its attacks, many of them in bombings and shootings that have occurred outside the main Basque population centers, particularly in Spain. The statement approached the issue obliquely, saying only that “faced with violence and repression, dialogue and agreement must characterize the new age.”

By issuing their declaration 72 hours after the peace negotiators met in San Sebastián, the ETA commanders appeared to have found a face-saving formula for acknowledging the harsh realities confronting them if they sought to continue their armed confrontation.

By issuing their demand for peace in the Basque heartland, and effectively dictating to ETA the words of its concession by calling for “the definitive cessation of all armed action,” the negotiators effectively made it possible for ETA’s leaders to present themselves as responding to an international push for peace, rather than to the French and Spanish security crackdowns.

Raphael Minder contributed reporting from Madrid.



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