Spain's ETA ends extortion racket: business groups
The armed Basque separatist group ETA, which announced a ceasefire in January, has decided to end its practice of extorting money from businesses, employers' associations said Thursday.
ETA sent a letter announcing the move to the employers' associations of the northern Basque Country and of the neighbouring Navarra region, Confebask and CEN.
"We have received a letter in which ETA announces the end of its practices of extortion," a spokeswoman for Confebask said.
She described it as "positive and hopeful news" but said "we must remain careful."
The head of CEN, Jose Antonio Sarria, also confirmed receiving the same letter. He added that businesses in Navarra had not received such extortion threats since October.
Extortion has been the biggest source of financing for ETA, whose campaign of instilling fear by shootings and bombings has claimed the lives of 829 people over more than four decades.
On January 10, ETA announced a permanent, verifiable ceasefire. But Spain's government rejected the offer, demanding the group go further and disband entirely.
The menacing letters from ETA demanding money with threats had continued throughout previous ceasefires declared in 1998-1999 and 2006-2007.
Each letter demands a precise sum, varying from several thousand euros to several hundred thousand euros, depending on the size of the targeted business, said ETA analyst Florencio Dominguez, chief editor of Vasco Press.
Much like a collection agency, it sends reminders with penalty fees for firms that fail to pay up, he said.
On Sunday, the group said in a statement that a "new era" had opened for the Basque region in recent months but that the road to independence will be "long and hard."
In another statement the following day, ETA deplored an incident in France in which two of its members opened fire on a policeman, saying such shooting was now "against the will" of the armed group.
ETA "is continuing working to build a situation that makes possible a final and democratic solution to the armed conflict, in line" with the latest ceasefire announcement, it said.
The group also announced a "permanent ceasefire" in March 2006, but nine months later it set off a bomb in the car park of Madrid's airport, killing two men.
Since then, the Spanish and French authorities have taken a hard line against it, arresting dozens of ETA members including some senior leaders.
Considered to be severely weakened, it has not carried out an attack on Spanish soil since August 2009.
Spain's top court last month rejected an application by a new Basque pro-independence group, Sortu, to form a political party so that it can stand in local elections on May 22.
© 2011 AFP