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ETA declares ceasefire, Spain urges it to disband

Armed Basque separatists ETA announced Monday a permanent, verifiable ceasefire after more than 40 years of bloodshed, but Spain’s government demanded it go further and disband entirely.

It was the first unilateral declaration of a permanent ceasefire in ETA’s campaign of bombings and shootings for a homeland independent of Spain, which has claimed the lives of 829 people.

“ETA has decided to declare a permanent and general ceasefire which will be verifiable by the international community,” the group said in a video declaration, with no promise of disbanding or disarming.

“This is ETA’s firm commitment towards a process to achieve a lasting resolution and towards an end to the armed confrontation.”

The video showed three ETA members in white hoods and black berets, sitting in front of a table and reading the statement aloud in the Basque and Spanish languages.

Behind them on the wall hung the ETA symbol of a snake wrapped around an axe, which represents armed struggle.

They called on Spain and France to end “repressive measures” and abandon their attitude of “denial” towards the Basque Country; and they urged Basque people to agree on a future with independence as a possibility.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero rejected the offer.

“The only thing we are waiting for from ETA is a statement on its definitive dissolution,” he told Antena 3 television, ruling out dialogue and saying ETA’s only choice was to disarm and respect the law.

Achieving an end to ETA’s violence would be a costly and difficult process, Zapatero said.

“We are without any doubt on the horizon of seeing that end to violence but it will take time,” the prime minister said. “We must remain united, with strength and intelligence and defending the democratic state. That way we will achieve it. I have no doubt.”

ETA announced a “permanent ceasefire” in March 2006 within the framework of negotiations with Madrid. But nine months later, it set off a bomb in the carpark of Madrid-Barajas airport, killing two men.

Analyst Gorka Landaburu Illarramendi, director of news weekly Cambio 16 and victim of an ETA parcel bomb in 2001 that blew off several of his fingers, said he did not expect the government publicly to enter negotations on the basis of the statement.

“I think it is an important step, a new step. It is not the definitive step. And the hope of the great majority of the Basque, even Spanish, people is that this organization dissolves itself and disappears from life.”

ETA released a series of declarations in September last year proposing an end to violence and calling for international mediation. But the Spanish government dismissed them, insisting on a definitive, verifiable ceasefire without conditions.

Spanish authorities believe ETA has been severely weakened after its security forces in cooperation with other countries, particularly France, repeatedly decapitated the group in raids on the leadership. There has been no attack on Spanish soil since August 2009.

But ETA has also come under severe pressure from within.

The group’s political wing, Batasuna, was ruled illegal in 2003 because of its links with ETA. It has called on ETA to declare a permanent, verifiable ceasefire in an effort to get the ban lifted so it can take part in municipal elections in May.

But Zapatero said the law was clear about what Batasuna must do to take part in the election. “Batasuna must know that either ETA abandons arms or they condemn, separate from and reject ETA to have that possibility.”

ETA was formed on July 31, 1959 during the dictatorship of general Francisco Franco by a group of Basque nationalist students.

On June 7, 1968, ETA shot and killed the police chief of the Basque coastal city of San Sebastian in the first deadly attack for which it claimed responsibility.

ETA assassinated Franco’s prime minister and presumed successor admiral Luis Carrero Blanco on December 20, 1973. He was killed instantly when his car drove over explosives planted by ETA in Madrid, sending the vehicle high into the air.