updated 6/29/2006 9:06:30 AM ET 2006-06-29T13:06:30

Spain officially announced the start of peace negotiations with the Basque separatist group ETA after formally informing parliament Thursday, and the prime minister warned that talks to end decades of bloodshed would be long and difficult.

The talks had been widely expected since ETA declared a permanent cease-fire on March 22, and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had pledged to formally inform Congress by the end of June, when it breaks for a long summer holiday.

Zapatero has stressed that the talks would be held with discretion, and he kept his word Thursday, giving no details of where or when the negotiations would be held. He said only that the interior minister would update congressional leaders on progress in September.

“The government is going to initiate talks with ETA,” Zapatero said from parliament. “The process is going to be long, tough and difficult. We’ll handle it with determination and prudence, with unity and loyalty and always with respect to the memory of the victims.”

Zapatero said Spanish democracy would not pay “any political price” to reach peace, an apparent reference to his insistence that the talks would focus on ETA’s dissolution and the status of more than 500 ETA prisoners in Spanish jails, not the militant group’s stated goal of winning independence for the Basque region.

Zapatero’s comments followed talks between Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba and the legislators, and as his Socialist Party reportedly tried to placate concerns by the opposition Popular Party.

Political opposition
That consensus was apparently not reached.

Conservative leader Mariano Rajoy followed Zapatero’s statement by saying his party could not support the peace process launched by the prime minister, and his decision to meet with representatives of ETA’s political wing, the outlawed Batasuna party.

“We cannot give our support to the government in this process,” Rajoy said. “It’s not acceptable to talk to Batasuna because it would be like talking with terrorists.”

The conservative Popular Party has been harshly critical of Zapatero’s support for more regional autonomy, and it fears the government could give away too much in its talks with ETA, whose ultimate goal is independence for the wealthy northern region bordering France. Zapatero has publicly rejected any calls for Basque independence.

Last week, voters in the northwestern Spanish region of Catalonia approved a referendum that grants that powerful area far greater autonomy, and more control over its tax revenue. Conservatives have said the vote, and similar moves under way in several other of Spain’s 17 regions, could lead to the breakup of the country.

ETA has been weakened by waves of arrests in the past two years, and saw much of the popular support for its terror tactics washed away following a massive bombing by Islamic radicals in Madrid in March 2004 which killed 191 people.

Last death in 2003
The Basque group has not killed anyone since a May 2003 car bombing that claimed the lives of two policemen, although prior to the cease-fire announcement, it had kept up relatively low-level bomb attacks designed to extort money from local businessmen.

Last week, ETA urged the Spanish government to launch peace negotiations allowing for Basques to decide their own future — an option Spain rules out. The group issued a toughly worded statement saying the cease-fire it declared in March still stands, but insisting that the government end what ETA called continued repression against Basque militants.

Even as moves toward an announcement of peace talks were under way, Spanish authorities have arrested alleged Basque militants and financial backers.

Two businessmen were detained last week and questioned about apparent payments to the group, while ETA co-founder Julen Madariaga was arrested in France. All three were later freed.

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