Accessibility links

Spain Hopes for Peace With Basque Separatists


After nearly 40 years of separatist violence, Spain's ETA terrorist group has announced a permanent ceasefire. The separatist organization has killed more than 800 people in its quest for an independent Basque nation in northern Spain and parts of southwestern France. Many Basques believe peace may finally arrive in this troubled region.

Basque journalist Gorka Landaburu remembers clearly the day five years ago when he opened a letter bomb at his office. The package exploded in his hands, blowing off his right thumb and the tips of several fingers, but unlike hundreds of other victims of ETA terrorism, Landaburu survived.

Now Landaburu, 55, is contemplating an entirely different kind of close encounter with the 38-year-old Basque terrorist movement, as a potential partner in peace.

During an interview in a hotel in San Sebastian, Landaburu said he believes the Basque region has never been so close as now to peace. ETA, he says, has no other option but ending its violence.

Landaburu is not alone in this assessment. In a statement last month ETA (an acronym that stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom) said it was renouncing violence permanently. If so, that means the demise of Western Europe's last, major homegrown terrorist movement.

Experts like Landaburu cite a confluence of factors making peace in Spain's Basque region more likely today than anytime in the past.

Landaburu says police crackdowns in Spain and neighboring France have drastically weakened the terrorist group. And the 2001 terrorist attack in the United States and the 2004 terrorist bombing in Madrid have only increased Spanish disgust for terrorism, even among Basques who support the goal for an independent Basque nation.

Equally important, experts say, the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is offering an unprecedented overture for peace. Last year, Mr. Zapatero obtained parliamentary approval to open official talks with ETA, if the group renounced violence.

If the Socialist government concludes the group is serious about its latest truce - and the prime minister suggested this week that was the case - disarmament talks may begin within a few months.

Jean Chalvidant is a French expert in Basque terrorism.

Chalvidant says the truce comes at a good time for ETA, but also for Mr. Zapatero. He notes the prime minister's popularity has jumped a few points since the truce was declared. It is important he says, that Mr. Zapatero shows he has succeeded where others have failed.

Pro-independence demonstrations were once a regular occurrence in San Sebastian. But today, there are few signs of ETA's shadow, or of Basque dreams of an independent nation. Only in the old quarter are visitors reminded this is no ordinary European city. Green flyers plastered to walls say in English, "Attention tourist: You are not in Spain, you are not in France. You are in Basque country."

Polls show only about a third of Spanish Basques want to succeed from Spain, ETA's main goal. Even those who do like Javier Apalaterui, 21, are pleased with ETA's truce.

"I think they realize the Basque country wants to fight for our rights, but with another way - through democracy," he explained. "We are a democracy. So we can fight for our rights without them. We do not need them. And I think they have realized that."

But few believe the peace process will be easy. It is unlikely, for example, the Spanish government will agree to ETA demands for full amnesty of Basque prisoners - or a referendum on seceding from Spain. Whether ETA will disarm is another question. And the Batasuna Party - ETA's political arm, remains illegal in Spain and on the terrorist lists of the United States and European Union. Perhaps the most difficult task will be reconciling the regions scarred and divided population.

Politicians wrestled with similar problems when it came to the peace process in Northern Ireland, after the Irish Republican Army renounced terrorism.

But Eneko Goya, a local lawmaker from the Basque National Party, says there are key differences between the Basque separatist struggle and that in Northern Ireland.

Catholics and Protestants live in separate zones in Northern Ireland, Goya says. But here, you can find supporters of all kinds of political tendencies living in the same apartment building, including those supporting the banned Batasuna party and the ETA goals.

Former ETA member Joxean Agirre, who spent 18 years in prison for assassination, says he is treated cordially on San Sebastian's streets.

Agirre is a prominent local activist fighting for greater rights of ETA prisoners. He says people may not agree with his views. But the first priority for everyone now is to build peace.

But in the small Basque town of Amurrilo, about a two-hour drive from San Sebastian store owner Santiago Abascal, 55, disagrees. Abascal is the regional spokesman for the opposition Popular Party which takes a hard line on terrorism.

He shows a reporter a long printed list of the many ETA death threats against his father, himself, and now his 29-year-old son, a Popular Party deputy in the Basque parliament. He and his son live with round-the-clock bodyguards. He does not think he will see the day he will leave the house without them.

Abascal says only law and order can resolve the Basque conflict. Negotiations are not possible with terrorists. ETA killed people, he says, and now they must pay.

XS
SM
MD
LG