Negotiators to push for end to violence by Spain's ETA
International negotiators met here Monday to press for a historic end to more than 40 years of violence by Basque separatist group ETA, blamed for 829 deaths.
Calls mounted for ETA to seize on the meeting as a chance to disarm and disband, giving up on the use of bombs and guns to carve out an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.
Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan is a leading delegate at the one-day San Sebastian conference, which does not include the Spanish government or any representative of the outlawed ETA.
"We hope and we are going to ask those present here to demand that ETA immediately disarms," Basque Socialist economy secretary Carlos Totorika told journalists in San Sebastian before joining the meeting.
The Basque Country "is the last place in Europe where a band of terrorists impedes on the freedom of citizens", he said.
Others in the conference include Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party president Gerry Adams, Irish ex-prime minister Bertie Ahern and former Norwegian prime minister and WHO chief Gro Harlem Bruntland.
Speculation is mounting that ETA, listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and European Union and held responsible for 829 deaths, will call a permanent end to the violence soon after the conference.
The timing is important, coming before November 20 elections widely expected to turf the ruling Socialists from power and install the conservative Popular Party.
"The important thing is that probably we are putting an end to this," said Ramon Jauregui, minister responsible for relations between parliament and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's office.
Jauregui told Onda Zero radio he believed it was "very probable" that ETA would use a call by the conference for a definitive end to violence as cover to make an announcement along those lines.
ETA, born during the dictatorship of general Francisco Franco, has been edging towards a definitive end for some time, hastened by Basque secessionists who urge that the cause be defended with ballots, not bombs and bullets.
Severely weakened by the Spanish and French security forces, which detained successive waves of its leadership, the armed group has launched no attack on Spanish soil since August 2009.
ETA took a significant step further by declaring a unilateral ceasefire in January this year.
In September, ETA announced that most of its 700 imprisoned members had also agreed to abandon violence.
On the eve of Monday's talks, Basque Country regional president Patxi Lopez joined other policymakers in calling on ETA to use the conference as an exit strategy.
Visiting Ground Zero in New York, Lopez said democracy and democrats did not need a conference to defeat terrorism.
But "if ETA and its supporters need it to stage their final end, I want to tell them to take advantage of this opportunity, to truly take advantage to put a final end to it," he said.
Sinn Fein's Adams, a key member of talks that ended the IRA, said the conference was a "very, very significant step."
"Hopefully, we will see a step change in the situation arising from today's initiative," Adams told Ireland's RTE state radio.
A key to developing an end to conflict is to find an alternative and develop dialogue, Adams said.
"It is my view that can happen in the Basque Country in the same way as it happened in our country," he added.
"Obviously the Spanish government has to embrace such an approach. It is a two-way street, the whole business of peace-making."
More than five years ago, ETA and the Spanish government seemed to be making progress towards an agremeent.
ETA declared a "permanent ceasefire" in March 2006 for talks with the government.
But, nine months later, ETA militants set off a bomb in the Madrid-Barajas airport carpark, killing two men and setting in stone a Spanish policy of refusing further negotiations.
© 2011 AFP