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Spain's Basques welcome ETA move but remain cautious

Written by: Staff

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain, Mar 23 (Reuters) A mix of hope and scepticism ran through San Sebastian today, a day after violent separatist group ETA announced a sudden ceasefire, a dramatic turn after nearly 40 years of fighting.

The mayor of San Sebastian, a resort on Spain's northern Basque coast that has been an ETA stronghold for nearly 40 years, was moved to crack open the Champagne after yesterday's surprise announcement, and some others were equally uplifted.

But many remained either unmoved or sceptical, pointing out that ETA had called several times for ceasefires in the past, only to break them. They wanted to see results before feeling assured of ETA's intentions.

Given that the group has been responsible for the deaths of more than 850 people during a nearly four decade separatist campaign, a degree of reservation was understandable.

Those townspeople that were prepared to comment were cautious, well aware that the ''wrong'' kind of opinion has been enough to provoke someone's assassination in the past.

''(The ceasefire) wasn't much of a surprise,'' said one woman as she read the newspaper at a cafe in the rainswept city. ''After all, ETA havent killed anyone for nearly three years.'' Yet mixed with the caution, there was a strong stream of optimism, particularly from politicians, clearly keen to turn the corner after years of often fruitless negotiations with ETA.

''Today I saw more people smiling and saying hello than on other days,'' said Ramon Etxezarreta, a Socialist town councillor, referring to those, like himself, who are permanently accompanied by bodyguards due to ETA's threat.

''The personal situation of many people has changed. All of a sudden their lives are more bearable.'' That may be a little over-optimistic given ETA's propensity to resort to violence, but certainly yesterday's news -- if it holds -- promises to breath new life into a region that has suffered economically, with violence scaring off investors.

NEW DAWN? ''There are new political perspectives because the ETA violence prevented anything which was different from its own,'' Etxezarreta said hopefully.

Local politicians said the announcement of a ''permanent ceasefire'' was the fruit of years of hard work from some politicians and mediators -- although the government in Madrid has always denied direct talks with the group.

''More than anything, Basque people want peace,'' said Gorka Landaburu, the editor of magazine Cambio 16 who was himself a victim of an ETA blast in which he lost three fingers and the sight in one eye.

''Basque society is a very plural society and we are going to have to find agreements with one another, and everyone is going to have to cede ground,'' he told Reuters in an interview.

On the right of the political spectrum, the view from Popular Party councillor Ramon Gomez was positive, but cautious. The Popular Party opposes any talks or negotiations with ETA.

''This is a success for democracy, we have beaten them (ETA)'' he told Reuters.

That remains to be seen. And even if it does end up holding true, it may still take time for life to change in the Basque region. In a bar overlooking the seafront, two young women would only giggle when asked whether anything signficant had changed in the last 24 hours.

Eventually one said: ''Not really''.

Reuters SY BD2314

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