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Spain intends to defuse Basque sovereignty plan

14 March 2008

MADRID – Spain’s re-elected Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will attempt to defuse a looming conflict with the Basque region over its independence strivings by offering it a more limited enlargement of its current autonomy status, the daily El Pais reported Friday.

Zapatero’s Socialists won a second consecutive term in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

Basque regional Prime Minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe announced in 2007 that he would stage a regional referendum in October on the right of the 2.1 million Basques to decide their own future. The options are understood to include a self-government bordering on independence.

Ibarretxe believes that a referendum would help to end Spain’s conflict of four decades with the militant Basque separatist group ETA, which has claimed more than 800 lives.

ETA’s most recent attack occurred two days before Sunday’s elections, when a gunman shot dead a former Socialist councillor in the Basque town of Arrasate.

The Spanish government, however, regards the referendum as illegal and has vowed to block it.

Zapatero’s new government, which has not yet been appointed, is now expected to try to defuse Ibarretxe’s initiative by offering to enlarge the Basque region’s autonomy within the limits imposed by the constitution.

The Basques already have the widest measure of self-government among Spain’s 17 regions, with their own police force, the right to raise taxes and to teach their language in schools.

The Zapatero government enlarged the autonomy of six other regions during the previous legislature.

The Socialists, who did not win an absolute majority in Sunday’s elections, are hoping to govern with the support of Ibarretxe’s Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and some other smaller party.

Ibarretxe was not expected to easily relinquish his referendum plan, which he described as remaining valid despite the PNV only taking 6 seats, one less than in 2004, in the Spanish parliament.

The PNV is, however, divided between Ibarretxe’s separatist-minded and a more moderate current.

[Copyright dpa 2008]