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Spain Wants Fight Against Terrorism to Top EU Agenda - 2002-01-09

A week ago, Spain took over the rotating presidency of the European Union and made it clear that its first priority will be strengthening cooperation among EU members and between the EU and the United States in the fight against terrorism.

Spain is trying to link its own battle with the armed Basque separatist group, ETA, to the West's wider war on terrorism.

After meeting members of the European Commission, the EU's Brussels-based executive body, on Monday in Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar reiterated his country's determination to put the fight against terrorism at the top of the EU agenda.

Mr. Aznar says the EU must intensify its cooperation in the anti-terrorist struggle with all countries, but especially with the United States and also with Russia.

Mr. Aznar describes the fight against terrorism as the priority among priorities and calls it a struggle for everyone's security.

Spain has had its own terrorism problem for 33 years, ever since the militant separatist group, ETA, launched a campaign of violence aimed at achieving independence for Spain's northern Basque region.

The ETA's attacks have killed more than 800 people, and diplomats in Madrid say the Aznar government wants to use its EU presidency - and the hardening of world opinion against terrorism after the September 11 attacks in the United States - to crack down on the hardline separatists.

Gustavo de Aristegui, a leader of Mr. Aznar's People's Party (Partido Popular), says the attacks on New York and Washington - and the Irish Republican Army's pledge to begin disarming - have left ETA's own terrorist tactics increasingly isolated in Europe.

"There is a lower degree of, I would say, understanding, or even tolerance, toward terrorism in the world, and definitely in Europe. And people are not making any distinctions about terrorism anymore," he said.

Mr. Aznar scored a victory last month when the EU included ETA in a list of groups and individuals it considers to be terrorists. But the Batasuna party, considered to be ETA's political wing, was not listed, despite Madrid's effort to get it included.

Mr. Aznar's spokesman, Pio Cabanillas, has said the government will keep trying to get Batasuna members whom it considers terrorists to be put on the list.

"Batasuna is a legal political party in my country. We know that it has links to ETA. In fact, several people belonging to Batasuna have been included on this list. We will work and provide the proofs both to judges and to international organizations in order to include those that merit to be included on those lists," he said.

Mr. Cabanillas said that, despite Spain's own terrorist problem, Madrid sees the terrorism issue as a worldwide threat and not just as a domestic one.

"We're fighting international terrorism. We make no differences. But I prefer to focus on something that has become the greatest threat to democracy all over the world than to just identify it as a one-country issue," he said.

Besides publishing its terrorist blacklist, the EU in recent months has also agreed to establish a Europe-wide arrest warrant and a common definition of terrorist crimes.

Although it probably will not go into effect until 2004, the warrant would eliminate the time-consuming process of extraditing suspects from one country to another. It stipulates that a suspect wanted in one EU member state would be arrested by any other EU nation and turned over to the country issuing the warrant.

Spanish government spokesman Cabanillas said Spain wants to concentrate on strengthening police and judicial cooperation among countries committed to fighting terrorism.

"The only way to fight terrorism is to be capable of reacting fast. Of course, respecting the state of law. But if the police, if judges, can cooperate, if foreign judicial decisions are recognized in other countries, as I said, if extradition is changed into a much more fluid and easy type of cooperation, I think results will come forward," he said.

Though Spain insists it wants to cooperate more closely with the United States, it is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, which outlaws the death penalty. Madrid insists it will only extradite suspects if they do not face capital punishment.

Last November, Spanish authorities arrested eight men suspected of being linked to a cell of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida organization. But even though they say the men would get a fair trial in the United States, they are reluctant to extradite them because of the possibility they may receive death sentences.