BILBAO, Spain – After killing more than 800 people across Spain during the last four decades in its drive for an independent state, the Basque separatist group ETA yesterday said it would lay down its arms – but stopped short of declaring it was defeated.
The historic announcement was made via video by three ETA members wearing trademark Basque berets and masks. At the end of the clip, they defiantly raised their fists in the air, demanding a separate Basque nation.
Once a force that terrorized the country with shootings and bombings, Europe’s last armed militant movement has been both romanticized and vilified. But it had been decimated in recent years by a wave of arrests, declining support among nationalists, and repulsion with raw violence. The announcement had long been expected.
The group has killed 829 people since the late 1960s in a campaign of bombings and shootings aimed at forcing the government to allow creation of an independent Basque homeland straddling provinces of northern Spain and southwest France.
ETA emerged during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who was obsessed with the idea of Spain as a unified state and suppressed Basque culture. Franco banned the ancient and linguistically unique language – which sounds nothing like Spanish or any other language – and destroyed books written in it.
Basques argued that they are culturally distinct from Spain and deserve statehood, and arrests of independence sympathizers still prompt crowds to head to the streets clapping in support. But, the wealthy and verdant region also has a large population of non-Basques who consider themselves fully Spanish and have long been opposed to the militants.
ETA’s most spectacular attack came in 1973, when the group planted a bomb on a Madrid street after weeks of tunneling, and blew up the car of then Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco. He was killed in a blast that sent the vehicle into the air and left it atop the roof of a nearby building. The group became even more violent in the 1980s, shooting hundreds of police officers and politicians, and occasionally killing civilians.
Classified as a terrorist group by Spain, the European Union, and the United States, the group has seen its power and ability to stage attacks wane during the last decade, following the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2004 Madrid train bombings by radical Islamists. It has not killed anyone for two years, and recent reports said it may have as few as 50 fighters.
The carefully choreographed process toward yesterday’s announcement began a year ago, when the group’s political supporters renounced violence. ETA then called a cease-fire, one of nearly a dozen over the years. This week, international figures such as former UN secretary general Kofi Annan attended a conference that called on ETA to lay down its weapons.
The announcement marks the first time the group has said it was willing to renounce armed struggle, a key demand by Spain. It comes as the country prepares for general elections Nov. 20, and some analysts had predicted it would be made to give the ruling Socialist Party a boost as it faces almost certain defeat amid a national unemployment rate of 21 percent, the eurozone’s highest.
In its statement, ETA said it had “decided on the definitive end of its armed struggle.’’ But significantly, the group did not suggest that it would dissolve in an unconditional surrender, as Spain has demanded for decades.
Instead, the group said both Spain and France should negotiate with ETA to end the conflict, a demand that Spain has repeatedly said it would not honor.
“We have an historical opportunity to find a just and democratic solution for the centuries old political conflict,’’ the ETA statement said. “Dialogue and agreement should outline the new cycle, over violence and repression. The recognition of the Basque Country and the respect for the will of the people should prevail over imposition.’’
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hailed the news as a victory for Spanish democracy. In a brief appearance before reporters, however, he made no mention of prospects for dialogue with ETA.
Talks in 2006 went nowhere, and ETA ended a cease-fire with a blast that killed two people a parking lot in Madrid.
Zapatero credited his and previous governments’ fight against ETA, and the police and soldiers who have died in it. He thanked France for its collaboration and remembered all the people killed in ETA shootings and bombings, and their families.
“At this moment, I’m particularly thinking of the Basque society,’’ Zapatero said. “I am convinced that from now on it will finally enjoy a coexistence that is not anchored on fear or intimidation. It will be a fully free and peaceful coexistence.’’
He added: “With the restraint that history imposes on us, we are today living legitimate satisfaction over the victory of democracy, law and reason. It is a satisfaction in mourning for the pain caused by violence that should never have happened and that should never happen again.’’
Zapatero’s former interior minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the man most people credit with bringing ETA to its knees, said, “If only this day had come before.’’