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Spain urges govt to play hard after ETA ceasefire

Written by: Staff
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MADRID, Mar 23 (Reuters) The Spanish government should take a hard line with ETA, analysts today said, a day after the Basque guerrilla group announced a ceasefire that has been greeted with widespread political and media scepticism.

While the leading pro-government newspaper El Pais hailed yesterday's declaration of a permanent ceasefire as ''an unprecedented opportunity'' and a success for democracy, other commentators warned that this may be just another false dawn.

''Peace has no political price,'' right-wing newspaper ABC wrote in an editorial. ''Clearly ETA is keeping to its objectives but is looking to reach them via a truce.'' The government has reacted with caution to the ETA announcement.

Some 850 people have died in ETA's four-decade-long campaign to carve out an independent state between northern Spain and southwest France. It has not killed anybody since 2003, limiting itself to small bombs and extortion.

Commentators linked the truce to the Socialist government's moves to hand more power to the northeast region of Catalonia, moves 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 in national disintegration.

''Recognising Catalonia as a nation means the Basque Country can equally well be one. The fact the ceasefire came yesterday, at the first opportunity after the statute was approved, says it all,'' said a commentator on the Catholic radio station COPE.

The Basque Country has full autonomy over its finances and, like other regions, has a powerful regional government and responsibility for its own health and education services.

ETA's goal is for ''self-determination'' -- understood as a referendum and declaration of independence. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has ruled this out.

DIALOGUE AND NEGOTIATION ETA said political change now needed to come through ''dialogue, negotiation and agreement''.

Zapatero, who welcomed the truce with ''caution and prudence'' is due to talk to the right-wing opposition about the way forward next week but has made no mention of talking to ETA.

Commentators said the government should tread very carefully until ETA moved from the word truce to laying down arms or ending ''low level violence'' like extortion and threats against local, non-nationalist politicians.

''I would advise politicians not to dismiss their bodyguards,'' Angel Acebes, an interior minister in the former conservative government, told Radio COPE.

Analysts questioned what made this ceasefire different from past truces which only lasted months with some suggesting ETA, classed as a terrorist group by the European Union and Washington, had now been seriously weakened.

Spanish and French police have arrested dozens of ETA suspects and clamped down on the group's financing networks and about 500 ETA members are now in jail.

That is a far cry from the dramatic days when ETA tunnelled under a road in central Madrid and laid explosives that killed dictator Francisco Franco's chosen successor, blasting his car right over a building.

Its bloodiest bomb was in a hypermarket in Catalonia which killed 21 shoppers and which ETA said was a mistake.

REUTERS DKS PM1819

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