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ETA, from student group to Basque bombers

It began as a group of left-wing students discussing Basque nationalism in the 1950s and grew into ETA, a band of bombers and shooters who killed at least 829 people.

On Thursday it declared a “definitive cease” to its armed action, in a statement published online.

The armed fight for a Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France was born in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who suppressed the Basque language and any signs of independence.

Nationalist students in Bilbao, frustrated by the moderate, non-violent stance of the Basque nationalist party PNV, founded Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom) on July 31, 1959.

In the following eight years, ETA damaged state property, hung banned Basque flags and adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology — but it is unclear whether it actually killed anyone in this period.

Spain’s parliament says ETA detonated a bomb in the luggage office of a San Sebastian’s railway station on June 27, 1960, killing a 22-month girl in its lethal attack but this is disputed even by historians.

Its first acknowledged killing came on June 7, 1968, when an ETA member shot and killed a 25-year-old paramilitary policeman, Jose Pardines, in the Basque city of Villabona.

Five years later ETA, whose symbol is a snake wrapped around an axe in a representation of armed struggle, carried out the most spectacular assassination in its history.

On December 20, 1973, its militants planted a huge bomb in a sewer along a route regularly travelled by Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, then head of government and expected successor to Franco.

The blast sent the vehicle flying through the air as Carrero Blanco headed to mass in central Madrid, killing him and leaving a massive crater in the road.

Some of ETA’s deadliest years came in the five years following the death of Franco in 1975 and the arrival of democracy. The group killed nearly 100 people in 1980 alone.

In its single deadliest attack, the Basque separatists bombed the parking lot of a Barcelona supermarket in June 1987, killing 21 people and injuring another 45.

ETA mounted two failed attacks in Madrid in 1995 against Jose Maria Aznar, months before he took over as conservative prime minister, and against King Juan Carlos in Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands.

But the tide of opinion was turning against ETA.

On July 12, 1997, ETA kidnapped a conservative Popular Party councillor, Miguel Angel Blanco, and killed him 48 hours later, unleashing unprecedented anti-ETA protests nationwide.

A series of attempts to bring peace failed.

Ceasefires in 1989 and 1999 collapsed within weeks.

Then, in March 2006, ETA declared a “permanent ceasefire” for talks with the government.

But nine months later ETA militants set off a bomb in the Madrid-Barajas airport car park, killing two men who were sleeping in their car and setting in stone a Spanish policy of refusing future negotiations.

Severely weakened by the Spanish and French security forces, which detained successive waves of its leadership, the armed group has launched no attack on Spanish soil since August 2009.

It took a significant step on January 10 this year by declaring another “permanent”, verifiable ceasefire and calling for a political agreement for the future of the Basque Country.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government rejected it, refusing to countenance any talks and saying ETA must definitively end violence and dissolve itself unilaterally.

Reports from the Basque Country say ETA has honoured this declaration nevertheless by halting its once notorious practice of extorting money from businesses with a “revolutionary tax”.

Pressure from within has helped push ETA towards its end.

The group’s political ambitions were thwarted when its political wing, Batasuna, was ruled illegal in 2003, 25 years after its creation, because of its links with ETA.

A new alliance of Basque separatist parties — Bildu — caused a major upset by beating Spain’s ruling Socialist Party in municipal elections in May this year.

Bildu was allowed to field candidates only after a court battle to prove it was not a mouthpiece for ETA.

If ETA is truly dead and gone, the Basque pro-independence movement will be hoping for major gains in general elections on November 20, widely expected to hand government to the conservative Popular Party.