Basque separatists declare end to violence

Armed Basque separatist group ETA declared an historic end to more than 40 years of bombing and shooting, welcomed by Spain as a victory for democracy.

Three ETA militants dressed in black shirts with white hoods over their heads and black berets made the dramatic video declaration terminating the deadly campaign for a Basque homeland.

It heralds the end of Western Europe's last major violent secessionist group, blamed for 829 deaths.

Sitting at a table with the band's emblem of the struggle - an axe with a snake curled around it - a masked activist in the centre of the trio delivered the news.

"ETA has decided the definitive cease of its armed activity,'' the band said in a written statement accompanying the video shown the internet site of Basque paper Gara, a mouthpiece for the group.

"ETA calls upon the Spanish and French goverments to open a process of a direct dialogue with the aim of addressing the resolution of the consequences of the conflict and, thus, to overcome the armed confrontation,'' it said.

"Through this historic declaration, ETA shows its clear, solid and definitive commitment.''

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in his last weeks of power before general elections on November 20, said ETA's decision was a victory for democracy.

"Let us live today the legitimate satisfaction of a victory for democracy, law and reason, a satisfaction stained by the unforgettable memory of the pain caused by a violence which should never have occured and which should never return,'' the prime minister said in a televised address.

"The actions of the justice system, the intelligence services and many other public servants have contributed to this end.''

After repeated ETA statements rejected by the prime minister, this was the first to be hailed as the final chapter.

The man tipped to win next month's election, the opposition Popular Party's leader Mariano Rajoy, called for ETA's total dissolution however.

ETA, classed as a terrorist group by the European Union and United States, bemoaned the loss of its comrades in the decades of violence but made no clear apology to its own victims.

"This has not been an easy way. The cruelty of the fight has taken away the lives of many comrades. Many others are still suffering in prison and in exile,'' it said.

"For them, our deepest recognition and tribute.''

The trigger for the announcement was a "peace conference'' held in San Sebastian, northern Spain, on Monday, which had called on ETA to renounce violence and for France and Spain to enter talks over the "consequences of the conflict.''

Neither the Spanish government nor the outlawed ETA were at the conference, which included top peace negotiators such as Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party president Gerry Adams.

In a statement, Adams welcomed ETA's announcement and urged Spain and France to agree to talks including over "the issue of prisoners and of demilitarising the environment''.

ETA is calling for its imprisoned members to be placed in Basque Country jails instead of being spread around the country.

ETA had declared a unilateral ceasefire in January this year, but the Spanish government demanded the group make it definitive by surrendering its arms and disbanding.

Severely weakened by 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.

ETA, born during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, had been edging towards the final page for some time, hastened by Basque secessionists who urged that the cause be defended with ballots, not bombs and bullets.

With the violent struggle waning, the fight seemed to be making greater progress through peaceful politics.

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 whose political wing, Batasuna, had been ruled illegal in 2003.

- AFP

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