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Spanish PM to visit Dublin for peace process help

Written by: Staff

MADRID, Mar 25 (Reuters) Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will visit Dublin within weeks to see what he can learn from the Irish peace process after the Basque separatist group ETA's ceasefire declaration.

He has accepted an invitation from his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern and will probably go in April, a Spanish government spokeswoman said today.

Zapatero is keen not to let momentum slip after the ETA guerrillas' declaration this week raised hopes of an end to their 38-year armed campaign, in which they have killed some 850 people.

Yesteray, the first day of the truce, Zapatero said he would ask Spain's parliament to approve plans to initiate contacts with ETA before the summer.

ETA has called ceasefires before, but this is the first it has described as ''permanent'' rather than ''unlimited'' or ''partial''.

In a press conference in Brussels on Friday, Zapatero singled out Britain and Ireland for their ''extremely useful'' contribution to the process in the Basque Country.

Today's El Mundo newspaper said Zapatero had met British Prime Minister Tony Blair twice during his two-year premiership specifically to discuss lessons from the Irish peace process.

The spokeswoman said Blair and Zapatero were likely to talk again informally but there were no plans for them to meet.

Yesterday, Irish Roman Catholic priest Alec Reid, who has been heavily involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland, said he had been talking to figures in the Basque Country for around four years.

''ETA isn't the problem,'' he told Reuters in the Basque city of Bilbao. ''The problem is you don't have a culture of dialogue and therefore of democracy.

''For them (Spaniards), dialogue is me trying to persuade you that I'm right.'' On Wednesday, Gerry Adams, leader of the Northern Irish republican party Sinn Fein, political ally of the Irish Republican Army guerrillas, urged the Spanish government to halt the trial of Arnaldo Otegi. Otegi is the leader of Batasuna, which is widely viewed as the political wing of ETA.

Otegi is due to appear in court next week and is likely to be jailed for breaking bail terms.

Although trust is still lacking at a political level between Northern Ireland's rival communities, the province has enjoyed unprecedented calm since ceasefires by the IRA and pro-British Protestant guerrillas paved the way for an historic peace deal to be signed in 1998.

Parallels between the conflict in the Basque Country and the one in Northern Ireland have long since been noted. Both exploded into life in the late 1960s and involved armed campaigns against state forces.

But there are many differences too.

Batasuna has never enjoyed the level of popular support that Sinn Fein commands in Northern Ireland and there is no equivalent in the Basque Country of the sectarian strife that plagued the British-ruled province for decades.

Reuters SHR BD2046

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