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ETA truce starts but Spain and Europe demand more

By Staff
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MADRID/SAN SEBASTIAN, Mar 24: A ceasefire declared by Basque separatists ETA came into force today as politicians in Spain and throughout Europe urged the group to hand over its weapons and renounce violence for good.

The truce, announced unexpectedly on Wednesday, came into force at midnight (2300 GMT), ushering in hopes that after 38 years in which it has killed about 850 people, ETA might finally have abandoned its violent campaign for Basque independence.

The group has described the ceasefire as ''permanent'', a word it has never used before in such circumstances.

Spain and the European Union have welcomed the move but want more from a group that once defied dictator Francisco Franco but has since lost much of its impetus as Spain has embraced democracy and regional autonomy.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero plans to meet opposition parties next week to discuss what might happen next.

His left-wing government has declined to say when, or even if, it might start talking to ETA which, since the peace process unfolded in Northern Ireland, has been left isolated as one of Europe's few remaining armed guerrilla groups.

''ETA must give clear signals of a definitive end to violence,'' said secretary of state for communications Fernando Moraleda, who acts as spokesman for Zapatero.

Most Spaniards have welcomed ETA's ceasefire but fear it may yet prove to be another false dawn. The group has announced several such truces before but has broken them all.

The centre-right European Popular Party, which groups Spain's main opposition party, struck a popular chord when it made four demands of ETA in a forthright statement on Thursday.

''(There must be) an unconditional handover of weapons, a definitive dissolution (of ETA), a clear renunciation of violence and intimidation and an apology to its victims,'' it said.

The European Union said it was too soon to say whether Batasuna, the party regarded as ETA's political wing, would be taken off its list of terrorist groups.

SELF-DETERMINATION DEMAND

Analysts say that, even if ETA and the Spanish government do get to the negotiating table, the result will fall far short of ETA's traditional demand for self-determination and a state carved out of northeast Spain and southwest France.

Instead, negotiations would probably focus on disarmament, and the future of about 500 ETA prisoners in Spain.

''The Basque country enjoys a very, very considerable degree of autonomy already,'' said Charles Powell, history professor at San Pablo CEU university in Madrid, referring to the region's parliament, police force, tax-raising powers and responsibility for its own health and education services.

''It's difficult to see what other concessions, other than symbolic concessions, can actually be made within the constitutional framework.'' Analysts linked ETA's truce to moves by the Socialist government to give more power to the northeast region of Catalonia in the form of a new statute calling it a ''nation'' within Spain.

Some have speculated that, if Catalonia can be deemed a nation within a nation, so can the Basque Country.

Advocates of Basque independence point to the region's ancient traditions and unique language, which bears no relation to Spanish, to support their separatist agenda.

That argument holds little water for most Spaniards and even in the region itself, Batasuna, the closest party to ETA in its ideology, won only 10 percent of the vote the last time it stood in elections.

Today's ceasefire could mark the beginning of the end for a group that was formed in 1959 and grew up with the student movements of the 1960s, carrying out its first killing in 1968.

Its most daring attack took place in 1973 when it assassinated Franco's prime minister with a massive bomb which blew his car right over the top of a building in Madrid.

However, ETA's power, or will, to kill and maim has waned, scores of its activists have been jailed and it has not murdered anyone since May 2003.

Reuters

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