Basque leaders expect ETA disarmament in Spain

21st February 2014, Comments 0 comments

Basque leaders in Spain expect armed group ETA to launch a historic disarmament process Friday as international monitors forecast "significant" steps to disbanding western Europe's last major violent separatist movement.

ETA, classed as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, may reveal the locations of some of its arms caches, Spanish media said, though officials declined to speculate.

An expected announcement by visiting international experts sparked rare optimism in the Spanish Basque country.

"A moment has begun that will lead to the complete disarmament of ETA. I hope that it will verifiable as from today," the regional president Inigo Urkullu, a conservative nationalist, told the Basque parliament.

"This step will lead to the definitive disbandment of ETA and Basque society hopes that this disbandment will be accompanied by an acknowledgement of the unjust harm caused," he added.

ETA is blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a four-decade campaign of shootings and bombings for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.

It has so far refused to disarm or disband, but said this month it plans to make "significant contributions" towards a lasting settlement -- widely seen as meaning a step towards disarmament.

The International Verification Commission of five foreign statesmen and experts met with local leaders and scheduled an announcement to the media at 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) in the Basque city of Bilbao.

A commission spokesman said ahead of Friday's visit it would give a "very significant and positive" message, "to do with the next step in the issue of peace".

- 'Significant' steps -

The Spanish and French governments refuse to negotiate with ETA, demanding it disband unconditionally. Spain does not recognise the verification commission.

Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz reiterated Spain's stance on Thursday.

"Any step towards disbandment is positive, but there is too much staging and theatrics," he said.

"What we need is declarations that are accompanied by deeds that can be completely verified by the security forces."

ETA has been weakened over recent years by the arrests of its senior leaders in Spain and France. Only about 30 of its active members are thought to be still at large.

In October 2011 it announced a "definitive end to armed activity" but refused to formally disarm and disband.

Meanwhile, non-violent leftist Basque nationalist parties have gained political influence and increasing power through regional elections.

Over recent months ETA members have tried to gain concessions from the Spanish government over prison conditions, outraging victims' families.

Spain and France have ignored ETA's request to negotiate its disbandment on conditions such as transferring prisoners to jails closer to home.

Hopes of progress were raised however on January 11 when rival Basque political parties joined together in a demonstration supporting that demand.

On February 7 ETA promised "significant contributions" towards a settlement "without delay".

"These are all little steps and I think that soon they will take another step, perhaps a more important one," said Gorka Landaburu, a specialist in Basque affairs.

Observers say ETA could reveal locations of arms caches -- most of which are thought to be in France -- or at least promise to do so.

But with sensitive issues such as the treatment of prisoners still outstanding, Landaburu added that on Friday "they won't be talking about disbanding yet."

© 2014 AFP

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