ETA was born in 1959 in protest against dictator Francisco Franco’s repression of Basque language and culture
MADRID: Four years after it renounced violence, armed separatist group ETA breathes its last without dissolving while many in Spain’s Basque Country hope a change in government in Madrid will finally turn the page on decades of conflict.
Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA), whose name stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom, was born in 1959 in protest against dictator Francisco Franco’s repression of Basque language and culture. But what remains of it now?
The group, blamed for more than 800 killings in its campaign of bombings and shootings to create a Basque homeland in northern Spain and south-western France, on October 20, 2011 declared a “definitive end to armed activity”.
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The renunciation by the group, which has long been split between those longing to lay down arms and those who preferred to keep up attacks, came after a peace conference that included Basque leaders and former UN chief Kofi Annan.
But before ETA completely dissolves it has demanded talks over an amnesty. It also wants jailed members regrouped in facilities in the Basque Country instead of being spread out across Spain and France.
But both the French and Spanish governments rule out any negotiations with ETA, which they still consider a “terrorist” group.
ETA now has less than 30 members at large, police sources on both sides of the border say.
“Outside of jails, there is no more ETA,” said a lawyer who has defended several members of the organisation and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Police pressure on ETA has not let up however — in January the authorities arrested five lawyers who were among the top defenders of the 427 jailed members of the group.
The operation hurt ETA’s efforts to “coordinate and maintain discipline” since the lawyers would pass on messages between group members, according to Spain’s chief prosecutor for terrorism cases, Javier Zaragoza.
Spanish and French police in May found an arms cache in south-western France’s coastal town of Biarritz. Experts believe that ETA, to whom the weapons belonged, was planning on handing them over unilaterally in a move aimed at putting the group back in the headlines.
Last month police in France arrested two suspected ETA leaders, Iratxe Sorzabal, 43, and David Pla, 40, further weakening the group. “ETA is plunged in an irreversible process of disappearing,” Zaragoza said.
The regional government of the Basque Country disagrees however. “ETA still exists. They still issue statements and there are still weapons caches,” said Johan Fernandez, the Basque regional government’s secretary-general of peace and coexistence.
He reiterated meanwhile the regional Basque Nationalist Party government’s support for negotiations with ETA. “We need to channel an orderly end to ETA, so as to guarantee that no weapons remain unaccounted for,” Fernandez said.
Many in the Basque Country agree. A poll published in late July showed that while 66 per cent of Basques rejected ETA, over three-quarters favoured negotiations between the central government in Madrid and the group.
Fernandez blamed ETA for not moving faster towards a unilateral disarmament but he also accused Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government in Madrid of “inertia”.
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The situation could change after a December 20 general election in Spain. “We have to wait and see what gameboard emerges from these elections,” said the spokesman for left-wing Basque separatist party Sortu, Pernando Barrena.
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Supporters of negotiations are waiting for release of Arnaldo Otegi, the jailed head of Sortu and a former member of ETA, which is expected in April 2016. An opponent of violence, Ortegi could encourage further changes.
“ETA wants to see the disarmament process through till the very end,” Barrena said. He recalled that in its last statement ETA said it had “accomplished the essentials of its trajectory” — an implicit acceptance that its end could be near.