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End of the Road for Basque Terror Group?


As Spain grapples with a new threat of Islamist terrorism following the Madrid train bombings last March, it appears to be winning a decades-long battle against

Basque terrorists. The guerrilla group ETA has not staged a major strike in 18 months. Now, many are wondering if the days of Europe's last homegrown terrorist group are numbered.

The orders were chilling and meticulously detailed. They gave the location of Gotzone Mora's office at the University of Basque Country in this regional capital. And they described the 55-year-old sociology professor as easily accessible to students.

A bullet to the neck is the best method, the directions concluded.

Sitting in a hotel in Bilbao, Mrs. Mora recounts the death threat against her, found in a document seized by Basque police six years ago. The alleged authors are commandos from the Basque separatist group ETA, which has fought

a bloody, 37-year-war for an independent country in northern Spain and parts of southwestern France.

It is not the only death threat against Mrs. Mora, a senior member of the local Socialist party who has condemned ETA's violence and its separatist dreams. Today, Mrs. Mora lives with round-the-clock police protection. Mrs. Mora describes herself as living in a [comfortable] prison. She changes her driving route to classes regularly. And everywhere she goes - including the meeting for this recent interview - she is accompanied by bodyguards. She says it's like living in the corridor of death.

ETA has been accused of killing more than 800 people since 1968. But it has been over a year since the extremist group staged a major strike. In the affluent and industrialized Basque region, and elsewhere in Spain, many believe the group is dying out. That includes Pere Vilanova, a political analyst at the University of Barcelona. "I think ETA is ended. Of this I am convinced. In terms of comparing the weight ETA has had in Spanish political life in the last 30 years, which doesn't mean the smallest people or groups remaining can't decide [to carry out] further killings. But excluding a few more killings, its agenda, its mid-long-term strategy has failed," she says.

In a statement published Sunday in a local Basque newspaper, ETA called for talks with the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez

Zapatero, and said it backed a November peace proposal by the Batasuna party, its banned political arm.

And in a letter last August, half a dozen senior ETA prisoners called on the terrorist group to renounce its campaign of violence, and seek an independent Basque nation through political means. ETA is dying a slow death, concluded the letter, which was leaked to Spanish newspapers.

Mr. Zapatero's government appears to agree. A government official told reporters in Madrid this week that Spain may possibly see the rapid demise of ETA. But the government insists that ETA first lay down its weapons before it will hold talks. And while some Basque politicians speculate that ETA may soon declare a ceasefire, there is no indication the group will renounce violence for good.

There are many reasons for ETA's new fragility. Stepped-up counter-terrorism cooperation between France and Spain has resulted in hundreds of cross-border arrests in recent years -- including the capture of two top ETA leaders in France, last October. And analysts say that after years of hijackings, extortion and political assassinations, ETA has lost the backing even of diehard Basque residents who share its dreams of an autonomous nation.

Jean Chalvidant is a French ETA expert, who has published a book on the Basque terrorist group. Mr. Chalvidant agrees that ETA is facing what he calls a critical moment. He says 15 years ago, the group counted about 8,000 members. Today it has about 2,000. And Mr. Chalvidant cited a recent poll showing that popular support for the extremist group has fallen from about 25 percent a few years ago to only 10 percent today.

In 2003 the European Union and the United States listed ETA's political wing, Batasuna, as a terrorist group. That same year the Spanish government declared Batasuna illegal.

At a sidewalk cafe in the Basque seaside city of San Sebastian one recent afternoon, Batasuna spokesman Joseba Alvarez Forcada said he believed ETA would stop fighting if a political agreement could be reached with the Spanish government. What's needed now, Mr. Alvarez said, is for all political parties to sit down and negotiate a peace agreement. He acknowledged that Basque people are tired of the constant bloodshed, and constant fear.

But skeptics are not so sure ETA will honor a peace agreement -- or that it iswilling to lay down its arms. They note ETA has been weak before. In 1998, for example, the guerrilla group declared a 14-month ceasefire, which essentially gave it time to gather force. ETA broke the truce in 1999, and went on to kill 46 more people. Even when its leaders are captured, experts like Jean Chalvidant note, the organization is able to replace them swiftly.

Like Batasuna's Joseba Alvarez, Mr. Chalvidant believes a political solution is the only way to end the Basque conflict. But he notes that successive Spanish governments have refused to negotiate a political deal with ETA. And without a political deal, Mr. Chalvidant believes, ETA will likely strike again in the near future.

Gotzone Mora also believes ETA will kill again. On Tuesday, a bomb attributed to ETA exploded in Getxo, an affluent town near Bilbao where Mrs. Mora lives. One policeman was injured.

Mrs. Mora's university has urged her to leave Basque country for security reasons. She refuses to do so. Why should I leave the place I was born in and where I have taught all my life? Mrs. Mora asks. Basque country is where her family and friends are, she says. Everything she has is here.

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