ETA declares ceasefire in Basque independence battle

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Basque separatist fighters ETA declared a ceasefire Sunday in their flagging 42-year campaign of bombing and shooting for a homeland independent of Spain.

ETA, blamed for the deaths of 829 people, said it decided several months ago that it "will not carry out armed offensive actions." It vowed instead to seek a democratic resolution.

It did not say if the ceasefire was temporary or permanent.

ETA made the announcement in a video sent to the BBC and pro-independence Basque daily Gara, showing three people in berets and yellow hoods sitting at a table flanked by Basque flags and with an ETA symbol on the wall behind.

Listed as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, ETA has not staged an attack on Spanish soil since August 2009, and the authorities in Spain and France have arrested much of its top leadership.

"ETA reaffirms its commitment to finding a democratic solution to the conflict," said a woman sitting in the centre.

"In its commitment to a democratic process to decide freely and democratically our future, through dialogue and negotiations, ETA is prepared today as yesterday to agree to the minimum democratic conditions necessary to put in motion a democratic process, if the Spanish government is willing."

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government reacted cautiously, after taking a political pounding when ETA broke its last ceasefire in 2006 and bombed Madrid's main airport.

The interior ministry was still examining the declaration, a spokesman said. The ministry had spoken to parliamentary groups including the opposition Partido Popular, he said.

Government officials were quoted in El Pais newspaper as saying the declaration was a move in the right direction but ETA still had to definitively abandon the armed struggle.

The paper quoted unidentified anti-terrorist sources as saying the ETA statement did not go far enough. "They do not announce the surrender of weapons nor the end of violence; it is not enough," one source was quoted as saying.

ETA, which was founded July 31, 1959, had been under pressure from its political allies to declare a truce.

Its political wing Batasuna plus its ally, the Eusko Alkartasuna party, had called on ETA in the past days to agree to a permanent ceasefire under international verification in a document outlining a road map for a peace process, a senior Eusko Alkartasuna official said Saturday.

Spanish media say Batasuna, which has been banned from running for office since 2003 because of its ties to ETA, hoped to return to the political game ahead of local elections in 2011.

Top Irish republican Gerry Adams, a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process who has held talks with ETA's political wing Batasuna, said the declaration could lead to a permanent end to the conflict.

"It is now vital that the Spanish government respond positively and grasp the opportunity to advance a peace process presented by today's announcement and quickly establish inclusive political negotiations," he said in comments carried by Irish state broadcaster RTE.

ETA announced a "permanent ceasefire" in March 2006 but months later reversed course and in December 2006 set off a bomb at a car park at Madrid's international airport, killing two people.

After ETA formally called off the peace process in June 2007, the Spanish government stepped up its campaign with arrests over the past three years of its leaders believed to have severely dented its operations.

Since the start of this year alone, Spanish police working with other forces including in France have arrested 68 suspected ETA members.

ETA's violent struggle has lasted more than four decades.

It first claimed responsibility for a killing on August 2, 1968 when it shot the police chief in the the northern coastal town of San Sebastian.

The Spanish government recently dated the first ETA attack to June 27, 1960 when an incendiary bomb exploded in a station in San Sebastian and killed a baby.

© 2010 AFP

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