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ETA Declares Permanent Ceasefire in Spain

The Basque terrorist group ETA has declared a permanent ceasefire. Gil Carbajal reports for VOA from Madrid that the Spanish government headed by Jose Luis Zapatero could begin negotiations with Basque separatist leaders.

Three representatives of ETA dressed in hoods have announced that their organization will declare a permanent ceasefire as of March 24 in their nearly 40-year attempt to achieve an independent state in Basque regions of southern France and northern Spain.

A videotaped communiqué, read by an ETA spokeswoman, was broadcast throughout Spain.

The statement said that the organization had made this decision in order to allow the initiation of a democratic process in the Basque country, which would enable the Basque people to decide on their own future and in which all political options would be considered. It called on the French and Spanish government to recognize the results of that democratic process and respond positively by stopping repressive actions.

Questioned in parliament, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero reacted with cautious optimism, saying that whereas in the past all political parties were united in their revulsion against the horror of ETA's terrorism, they could now be united in hope for peace. Later, he addressed the Spanish people in a brief news conference.

Mr. Zapatero said that his government would proceed prudently and calmly and warned that the road would be hard, difficult and long but followed always within the framework of democracy and legality. He emphasized that during the process he would be mindful of the victims of terrorism. He concluded by calling for the collaboration of all political parties and especially of the main opposition Popular Party.

Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy reacted to the ceasefire announcement with skepticism. He pointed out that ETA used a 14-month ceasefire declared in September of 1998 to regroup its forces. But offered his party's collaboration within the framework of an existing anti-terrorism agreement among Spanish political parties.

Spanish Defense Minister José Bono underlined the use of the word "ceasefire" rather than "truce," recalling the terminology used at one time by the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland when it announced its abandonment of armed struggle.

The chief minister of the Basque autonomous region in northern Spain, Juan José Ibarretxe, expressed his satisfaction with the news and said he would immediately ask for peace talks with all political parties.

ETA has accepted responsibility for killing more than 800 people since it began a violent effort to achieve an independent Basque Country in the 1960s. The last killing took place in May of 2003 when a car bomb killed two policemen.

Since then the group has limited itself to setting small bombs, which have only caused material damage. Although it has called a number of ceasefires, this is the first time the terrorist organization has announced a permanent one, indicating that it can begin to negotiate with Spanish authorities. Mr. Zapatero has made disarmament a precondition for negotiations with Basque separatists.