Basque foes look forward to bomb-free struggle

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Spain's Basque region was breathing easier after ETA's decision to end armed conflict, with separatists hoping to rejuvenate their struggle through different means and their opponents dreaming of a life free of bomb blasts.

"We have stripped them of their bombs. As of today, we have to strip them of their votes with the sheer force of democracy," Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the socialist candidate in Spain's upcoming elections, told Basque supporters in San Sebastian on Sunday.

Many of the party members in the audience have lived for years under the constant threat of joining the ranks of the hundreds killed by the separatist group over the years.

Rubalcaba, who was interior minister until he stepped down three months ago to dedicate himself to his electoral campaign, was moved to tears as he remembered the victims of ETA's decades-long independence campaign.

His comments also acknowledged the significant potential weight of the Basque separatist parties that officially took their distance from the armed group a year and a half ago.

As he spoke, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Bilbao, the other great Basque city, to demand independence for their region and an amnesty for ETA prisoners.

ETA's former political arm Batasuna, officially banned since 2003, was flexing its muscles, apparently galvanised by the armed group's decision to end all violence.

ETA's announcement "will have an impact on the vote," Felix Markaida said with confidence as he walked calmly with the crowd.

The 50-year-old lawyer predicted that the brand new Amaiur separatist coalition -- which includes the Aralar, Eusko Alkartasuna, Alternatiba and other Batasuna offshoots -- will clinch "a good score" in the November 20 polls.

"We now have to demand our rights in the places where they are debated," Markaida said.

"If Spain is a real democracy then Euskal Herria will have to be allowed to decide its own future through a referendum," he said, referring to the nationalist vision of a Basque country encompassing the entire Spanish region of Navarre and three French departments.

Basque separatists showed their intent with a good score in local elections in May and pollsters tipped them to clinch up to four seats in the Madrid parliament even before ETA's announcement.

ETA urged the governments of France and Spain to rekindle a direct dialogue on the Basque issue when it made its announcement on Thursday.

However Spain's opposition, widely tipped to beat the socialists in next month's elections, warned it would not talk "with a terrorist organisation".

For Joseba Markaida, the priority is simply to reclaim his life.

"I'll go to the beach! I live 500 yards from the sea ... but I would have felt ridiculous going there with a gun and a bodyguard," he said.

"I feel liberated," said the 57-year-old socialist spokesman in the small town of Berango, where he and his partner have lived for 10 years under the protection of bodyguards.

"The only ones for whom life will change are us, who were threatened, exiled, extorted. That's five percent of the Basque population," he said.

A similar feeling of relief filled the luxurious flat where Enrique Portocarrero lives and those of the 70 company managers who belong to the Basque business association he heads.

"This heavy burden that had been weighing the Basque country down has been lifted," he said.

"I honestly think that all this is over," he said, referring to the "four or five" car bombs that blew up in front of his home since 2000 and to the countless death threats he received.

"But ETA's credibility is nonexistent. So only time will tell."

© 2011 AFP

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