Basque leader quits, worrying Spanish politicians

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MADRID, Sep 13 (Reuters) The leader of the moderate nationalist party which runs Spain's Basque Country said he was quitting politics in a move Spanish politicians said could unsettle a region already marked by violence.

Josu Imaz said yesterday in a statement he hoped his decision to leave the presidency of the Basque Nationalist Party would help unite the group, which has been locked in debate over whether to call a referendum which could lead to independence from Spain.

Imaz was seen as a moderate voice in the PNV, which has ruled the region since the 1980s, and his move comes amid media reports he was forced out by the party's separatist wing.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who tried and failed to negotiate peace with violent Basque separatist guerrillas ETA and is running for reelection next March, said he was ''perplexed'' by Imaz's decision.

''I thought he was a good leader,'' he said, adding that Imaz had been a key ally in the struggle against ETA violence.

The leader of Spain's conservative opposition also expressed concern over Imaz's departure.

The Basque Nationalist Party condemns ETA violence. But if the party were to move to a stance which could lead to an attempt at leaving Spain, that could cause an enormous political headache for Zapatero, a socialist.

Imaz had argued with other Basque National Party leaders, including the current head of the Basque regional government, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, who want a referendum in which Basques could be asked whether they support self-determination.

Polls show most Basques want to remain in Spain. ETA has killed more than 800 people in a four-decade fight for Basque independence which began during the final days of the Franco dictatorship when the Basque language and culture were repressed.

Reuters SZ VP0415

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