Basque ETA separatists demand 'direct talks' with France
The Basque separatist group ETA urged France to open direct talks on a definitive end to its conflict with the French and Spanish states, in a statement released to AFP on Friday.
ETA announced an end to its armed struggle for an independent homeland on October 20 last year, but its calls for talks with Madrid and Paris have gone unanswered and security forces continue to round up its militants.
"Basque citizens hope that the French government responds positively to the opportunity to bring a definitive end to the consequences of the conflict, by beginning direct talks with ETA to that end," the statement said.
ETA's battle for the independence of the Basque Country, a territory that straddles the Pyrenees and includes a chunk of northern Spain and a corner of France, has lasted four decades and left at least 829 people dead.
In recent years ETA suffered a series of high-profile arrests on both sides of the border, losing some its most feared leaders, while political momentum in Basque areas has shifted to non-violent political movements.
In October, ETA declared a "definitive end to armed activity" and offered to disarm in November, but Spain's right-wing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ruled out talks with what the European Union regards as a "terrorist group".
France has not entered talks either, arguing Spain should take the lead in deciding how best to resolve a conflict that took place largely on its soil, to the anger of ETA, which insists Paris is involved.
In its statement, the separatist group accused France of pursuing a "policy of repression" by invoking European arrest warrants to send captured militants to Spain in "a policy of vengeance against political prisoners".
While the French portion of the Basque country has seen a small fraction of the violence that wracked the Spanish Basque lands and Navarre, sending Basques to face trial in Spain has proved controversial.
Several thousand Basques staged a demonstration in December to protest the expulsion of Aurore Martin, a Basque Frenchwoman and member of ETA's political winge, and of Spanish Basque militant Josu Ezparza.
On Thursday, Spanish police took custody of two more suspected members of the separatist group arrested in France in recent years, one day after French police detained yet another fugitive suspect.
"French decision-makers have the habit of presenting the 'Basque problem' as if it was a question only for Spain, thus covering up the direct responsibility of the French state," the group's statement said.
It accused France of fighting a "dirty war" to secretly dispose of militants and said both Paris and Madrid "deny the national reality of Euskal Herria", the Basques' term for what they see as their ancestral homeland.
The group says that around 140 of the 700 Basque nationalist militants in custody are being held in France, and called on both governments to group the prisoners in jails within the area they claim as Basque territory.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he may consider such a move on "humanitarian grounds" but has always insisted that, as most of the detainees have Spanish citizenship, it is not merely a matter for Paris.
Sarkozy visited the town of Bayonne in the French Basque country last week as part of his re-election campaign and was barracked by local protesters, including some from a Basque nationalist youth group.
During the visit he said he did not oppose the creation of an administrative structure for the French basque region, but said this must be done in agreement with elected officials, within the French republic and without violence.
© 2012 AFP