Image: People drink at a bar in Spain
Alvaro Barrientos  /  AP
People drink at a bar, as masked members of the Basque separatist militant group ETA are seen delivering a statement on a television, left, in the Basque town of Hernani, northern Spain, on Sept. 5.
By
updated 9/6/2010 1:31:32 PM ET 2010-09-06T17:31:32

How many cease-fires can you announce and break before everyone stops paying attention?

Spaniards inured to cease-fire announcements by the violent Basque separatist group ETA were mulling whether the latest one holds anything different or will fail like the others to end Europe's last major armed militancy.

The government on Monday swiftly ruled out holding negotiations on a Basque homeland and rejected Sunday's truce as a desperate gambit by an extremist group staggering after the arrests of its leaders.

Spain claimed the cease-fire was just another gambit by ETA in order to buy time, regroup and rearm. And a major newspaper, El Mundo, ran a cartoon Monday of a hooded ETA gunman in a traditional Basque beret offering an olive branch — abeit one that stuck out of a gun barrel.

Since launching its campaign for an independent Basque homeland in the late 1960s and killing more than 825 people in the process, ETA has announced 11 ceasefires, the last of them in 2006, which it called permanent.

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Promising peace talks with the government ensued but quickly went nowhere, and nine months later ETA reverted to violence with a massive car bomb that killed two Ecuadorean immigrants in a parking garage at Madrid airport.

This time inside, not outside, forces appear to have prompted three masked ETA members to declare a cease-fire Sunday in front of a ETA sign with a snake slithering around an ax. While historically ETA has called the shots, the pressure for a new halt to violence seems to have come from the group's own political supporters.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Monday that when ETA shocked Spain by abruptly ending the 2006 ceasefire "many people in the Basque nationalist movement woke up and said 'with this ETA we are not going to get anywhere.'"

Those divisions have been growing as ETA's banned political wing Batasuna apparently came to the conclusion that bombs and bullets were doing nothing to achieve the goal of Basque independence.

ETA's last deadly attack was a July 2009 car bomb that killed two policemen on the island of Mallorca. But Spain has no tolerance for terrorism now after Islamic militants killed 191 people in a 2004 train bombing in Madrid.

On Friday, Batasuna and a more moderate pro-independence party called Eusko Alkartasuna appealed to ETA to call a cease-fire that could be independently verified. They did so in writing, which was unprecedented.

Paddy Woodworth, an Irish expert on the Basque conflict, wrote Monday that most Basque nationalists now "are persuaded that ETA is a crippling debit, not an asset."

Rogelio Alonso, a political science professor at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid, said ETA's announcement was not a cease-fire at all because all the group did was say it had decided months ago not to stage "offensive armed actions." It gave no timetable and did not say if the cease-fire was temporary or open-ended.

Gomez says that is ETA's way of acknowledging it is too weak to attack and noted there was no mention of the truce being monitored.

"It does not (even) fulfill the request by Batasuna," he said.

Batasuna, which was banned in 2003 on grounds it is part of ETA, is desperate to be able to field candidates in Basque local elections scheduled for next year. Otherwise it faces political oblivion because the party is not represented in the regional legislature or in Madrid, and misses the subsidies that come with holding seats.

But in order to become legitimate, it must renounce the ETA or persuade ETA to renounce violence.

Joseba Arregui, a former minister in the Basque regional government in the 1980s, says the two sides of the pro-independence movement — one armed with weapons, the other with microphones — are in disarray and at each other's throats.

"They are both weak and blackmailing each other," Arregui said.

___

Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this story from Dublin

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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