Basque separatist group ETA on Wednesday declared a permanent cease-fire after almost four decades of bombings and shootings in Spain during its campaign for independence.
ETA said it hoped the truce, due to start on Friday, would drive forward its desire for Basques to be recognized as a people, while Spain’s Socialist government said it hoped the cease-fire would be “the beginning of the end”.
Politicians urged caution about any truce by ETA, which broke two cease-fires in the 1990s and seeks independence on territory in both northern Spain and southwest France.
Three ETA members appeared on state television to announce the new truce, dressed in black berets and white hoods covering their faces. They sat at a table in front of ETA’s flag showing a snake twisted around an axe.
“ETA has decided to declare a permanent cease-fire from March 24, 2006,” said a woman seated in the middle, reading from a statement.
“The object of this decision is to drive the democratic process in the Basque country in order to construct a new framework in which our rights as a people will be recognized and to ensure the future development of all political options.”
ETA has been weakened in recent years by a police crackdown with hundreds of arrests in France and Spain. ETA also lost support after the 2004 Madrid train bombings, when Spaniards recoiled in horror at the killing of 191 people by suspected Islamist fundamentalists.
ETA, Western Europe’s most active separatist group, has killed 850 people and threatened and blackmailed thousands of Basque businesses in its fight for independence. Its last fatal attack was in 2003.
A cease-fire could open the way to talks with Spain’s Socialist government, which is far more inclined to cede more power to Spain’s regions than the previous conservative government.
“It is a very good piece of news for all Spaniards,” said Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, as national television broke its regular programming to provide wall-to-wall coverage of the cease-fire.
“The government has the duty to be extremely prudent, you can’t be cautious enough ... It is our desire and our wish that this will be the beginning of the end,” she added.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero actively raised hopes of an ETA truce earlier this year, only for the group --classed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union -- to start bombing again.
“We can take this truce very seriously,” said Ignacio Sanchez, the author of studies on ETA.
“They have been weakened more than ever, both by the judiciary and the police. They are the last active terrorist group in Western Europe and everything points to this being a permanent truce,” he told Reuters.
ETA’s statement made two mentions of France being involved in the future of the Basque Country, although Paris has always refused to get involved in any talks with ETA.
“There is no question of France intervening in a problem which falls under Spanish sovereignty,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei reiterated. He did not comment on the new communique.
It is unclear quite how many Basques truly want their own state, having voted in a regional government run by the moderate Nationalist Basque Party, which sits in Madrid’s parliament.
Since 2003 ETA has set off only small bombs, which have caused damage to buildings but no deaths.