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Bitter relief as Spain hails end of ETA violence

Spain looked ahead with relief Friday to a future free of separatist violence after Basque group ETA promised to end more than 40 years of bombing and shooting.

The dramatic video announcement by three white-hooded ETA militants brought an end to a campaign that claimed 829 lives since its birth in 1959 during General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

Spanish leaders and civilians alike welcomed the news but stayed on guard since the group said nothing about handing over its weapons or disbanding.

“Yesterday all Spaniards received the most longed-for news in the history of our democracy: the announcement of the end of terrorism,” government spokesman Jose Blanco told reporters after a cabinet meeting on Friday.

“Terrorism is ended, but the pain of the victims and the suffering of their families continues.”

Reacting immediately after the announcement on Thursday, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero called it “a victory for democracy, law and reason”, but remembered the hundreds slain.

Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, widely expected to be elected Spain’s new leader in November 20 general elections, said it was “an important step, but the peace of mind of Spaniards will only be complete when ETA is irreversibly dissolved and completely disbanded”.

In the chilly streets of the Basque city of San Sebastian, locals reacted with joy but also caution on Friday.

“This is a great day for Euskadi. Peace, peace for Euskadi,” said Edurne Azpiri Garitonandia, 80, as she walked her dog, using the Basque name for the region.

“There are lots of people here who used to have to go round with bodyguards. This announcement could not have been better.”

Pensioner Martin Marticorena was more guarded.

“In principle it is good but it comes with conditions,” he said. “They have not given up their arms and the people announcing peace were wearing hoods.”

Many in Spain, including analysts, much of the press and victims, showed distrust and even disgust at ETA’s failure to apologise or offer to surrender arms, and its demand for political talks.

“We are disappointed because this is not the last step,” said Maria del Mar Blanco, a lawmaker with Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party in the Basque regional assembly, whose brother was killed by the Basque separatist group.

“The terrorist group ETA must still definitively end,” Blanco told AFP.

ETA, classed as a terrorist group by the European Union and United States, bemoaned the loss of its own militants but not its victims.

“The cruelty of the fight has taken away the lives of many comrades. Many others are still suffering in prison and in exile,” it said.

It called on the Spanish and French governments to open direct dialogue to resolve “the consequences of the conflict and, thus, to overcome the armed confrontation”.

Florencio Dominguez, editor-in-chief of the Bilbao-based news agency Vasco Press and an ETA expert, said one could now assume ETA’s violent days were over, but there were still doubts over their demands.

“What are they going to negotiate? Freedom for all their prisoners? That cannot be, they have caused too much pain,” Dominguez said.

The Basque pro-independence political movement Friday welcomed ETA’s declaration but said the political fight for self-determination would go on.

“There is still a political conflict that needs political solutions,” its spokesman Maribi Ugarteburu told a news conference, blaming Paris and Madrid for “denying the recognition and right to decide of the Basque nation”.

Jose Luis Orella, a historian at Madrid CEU University, said ETA’s commanders may reinvent themselves as politicians in the Basque Country, where separatist parties beat the ruling Socialists in municipal elections in May.

“They have shifted to a different front,” he said. “Violence is being abandoned and they are moving to the electoral fight.”

The leader of the Basque regional government, Patxi Lopez, told Cadena Ser radio he would meet with Basque parties “to start to open this political period”.

He added: “We have to be very cautious. Forty years of terrorism cannot be brought to an end in a few urgent hours.”