ETA casts shadow over Basque rail project

22nd February 2009, Comments 0 comments

Manolo, a worker on a controversial high-speed rail project in the Basque Country, can't afford to worry about threats from the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

ARAMAIO - "You can't go around all day with that in your head," he says when asked about fears of new ETA attacks against the project. But if there was no economic crisis, he says he would look for work somewhere else.

The high-speed TAV rail system, scheduled for completion in 2013, will link the Basque Country's economic centre of Bilbao with its regional capital Vitoria and the city of San Sebastian near the French border.

But since 2007, ETA, blamed for the deaths of 825 people in a four-decade campaign for an independent Basque homeland, has declared it a target.

In January, it issued a "clear message" to authorities to halt the project, and it has stepped up its attacks linked to the TAV in the run-up to regional elections on March 1.

Last December, suspected ETA gunmen killed a 71-year-old businessman, Inaxio Uria, whose company was involved in the project. And earlier this month, it exploded a car-bomb outside the offices of the Ferrovial company, which is also involved, without causing casualties.

ETA has denounced the TAV as favouring "interests foreign to the Basque region." But it is also keen to target major construction projects seen as harmful to the environment as a means of gaining support.

The Spanish government and regional authorities see the TAV as a key project, not only for the region, where it will create 9,800 jobs, but also in the country as a whole, where it will form part of the European high-speed network.

The European Union is providing 118 million euros (148 million dollars) of the cost of more than 4.0 billion euros.

Local authorities compare the TAV to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Leizaran motorway that links the Basque Country with the neighbouring Navarra region as emblematic projects in the region.

But ETA succeeded in forcing authorities to modify the route of the motorway. In the same way, it forced the cancellation of a planned nuclear plant in the town of Lemoniz in the 1980s.

To achieve these two victories, it killed nine people.

"This time, we do not foresee violence winning out," says Alvaro Videgain, president of an association of Basque businessmen.

But one source close to a firm involved in the rail project admitted "there is a feeling of fear," which has become stronger since the recent attacks.

An interior ministry source said security has been reinforced since the killing of Inaxio Uria.

Near the town of Aramaio, in the heart of the Basque Country, that means a private security guard round-the-clock.

The work at Aramaio, which involves building a tunnel and a bridge, has meant the expropriation of 100 hectares (250 acres) in a valley of outstanding natural beauty. A total of 80 tunnels and 71 bridges are planned for the whole rail network.

Among those affected are Maria Luisa Etxebarria, 76, and her husband, whose home is just 40 metres (yards) from the construction site.

"We can't breath or open the windows," she says. "The meadow is destroyed."

"The environmental impact is dramatic," says Aramaio mayor Asier Agirre, who has been prosecuted for "disobeying authority" for helping organise an opinion poll showing that the town's residents were opposed to the TAV.

Sixteen other villages are also opposed, and have joined a group of associations of local residents and environmentalists set up in 2001 to combat the project.

But the environmental group Greenpeace has condemned the ETA attacks on the TAV, which it says do nothing to advance the cause of environmental protection.

AFP / Elisa Santafe / Expatica

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