MADRID, Mar 23 (Reuters) Spain greeted Basque guerrilla group ETA's declaration of a ceasefire with a blend of hope and scepticism on Thursday, and the government indicated its response would be slow and cautious.
The left-wing administration said it planned to meet opposition parties next week to chart the way ahead. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did not say if or when he would start talking with ETA.
Justice Minister Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar said the truce would not alter the way courts dealt with the guerrillas.
While pro-government newspaper El Pais hailed yesterday's declaration of a permanent ceasefire as ''an unprecedented opportunity'', other commentators warned that it could be another false dawn.
''Clearly ETA is keeping to its objectives but is looking to reach them via a truce,'' right-wing newspaper ABC said.
Some said the government should demand ETA lay down its arms and call an end to extortion before any talks begin.
''This announcement should mean the total end to all attacks, threats and holding large sectors of the population hostage,'' human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.
In a statement released early today, ETA said it wanted ''dialogue, negotiation and agreement'' but many are wary of a group that has broken previous truces.
Spain has lived in the shadow of ETA threats for almost 40 years, during which almost 850 politicians, police and others have been killed.
Once one of few forces to stand against former dictator Francisco Franco, ETA's demand for an independent state straddling the Spanish-French border has waning support. Its violent campaign drew growing revulsion after the March 2004 Madrid train bomb, blamed on Islamist militants.
Batasuna, seen as ETA's political wing, gained only about 10 per cent of the vote in Basque regional elections last time it stood, and the now-ruling nationalist party has lost support.
''More than anything, Basque people want peace,'' said Gorka Landaburu, who lost three fingers and was blinded in one eye by an ETA letter bomb in 2001.
CATALAN CATALYST Commentators linked the truce to the Socialist government's moves to hand more power to the northeast region of Catalonia, steps that would go some way to satisfying ETA demands.
Congress approved a new statute for Catalonia on Tuesday, recognising it as a ''nation'' in Spain -- wording that horrifies patriots who see it as a first step to national disintegration.
''Recognising Catalonia as a nation means the Basque Country can equally well be one,'' said a commentator on Catholic radio station COPE.
The Basque Country has full autonomy over its finances and, like other regions, a powerful regional government and responsibility for its own health and education services.
ETA, classed as a terrorist group by the European Union and Washington, wants ''self-determination'' -- seen as a referendum and declaration of independence. Zapatero has ruled that out.
Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi had been due to appear in court on Friday and was expected to be jailed for breaking bail terms, but today the hearing was put off until next Wednesday because he is receiving treatment for a lung infection.
Police have arrested dozens of ETA suspects and clamped down on its financing. About 500 members are in jail.
It is a far cry from the dramatic days of the early 1970s when ETA tunnelled under a Madrid road and laid a bomb to kill dictator Francisco Franco's chosen successor, blasting his car over a building.
Reuters SY DB2105