Spain: all action, no talk, against Basque unrest

ETA is blamed for 13 deaths, including one Sept. 20. Basque moderates say they're being squeezed out.

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Juanjo Gastaazatorre's family has lived in Durango, Guipuzcoa, in the Basque region of northeastern Spain for at least 600 years. But as a prominent opponent of the Basque drive for an independent state, he does not always feel safe here.

A councilor for the ruling Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Mr. Gastaazatorre travels with bodyguards and takes a different route to work each day. His best friend and fellow councilor, Jesus Maria Pedrosa, was shot by ETA in June. The separatist group, whose name is a Basque-language acronym for Basque Homeland and Liberty, is believed responsible for 13 killings since it called off a cease-fire in December.

"For me, this year has been critical, not only because there have been so many murders, but because they killed my best friend," Gastaazatorre says. "There is no explanation for it... For me, democracy is antithetical to terrorism. If we live in a democracy, terrorism should not exist."

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Basque nationalism, although strongest in the Guipuzcoa region, does not depend on age, family, or location. Apart from ETA's deadly attacks, there is a nonviolent school of nationalism that supports two Basque parties opposed to violence, which between them account for at least 30 percent of the vote in Basque elections.

The main Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) now leads a minority government in the regional parliament, but is under pressure to call new elections. Euskal Herritarrok, a radical party with links to ETA's political wing, commands about 15 percent of the vote. The party appeals most to young people, but its demonstrations are also heavily attended by older women.

Since the end of the truce, Basque society has found itself more divided than ever. In a summer survey, 70 percent of respondents said they were afraid to discuss politics openly, up from around 50 percent during the 14-month ETA truce.

Mr. Aznar vowed last week in the war against Basque terrorism, "We will win, we will win well, and we will win soon."

Spanish and French police have been celebrating the success of a joint counterterrorist operation that resulted in the arrests of nearly 40 alleged ETA activists. Operation Black Wolf targeted 20 Basque radicals said to represent the group's financial and strategic operations inside Spain. Two weeks ago in France, police detained Ignacio Gracia Arregi, believed to be ETA's military leader. French authorities also picked up another 17 people accused of supporting ETA, including electronics experts and an alleged senior bombmaker. Most are in preventive detention being questioned, while two of those arrested in Spain have been released on bail.

Spain's Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja stated that ETA had suffered "almost irreparable damage," but warned that the group "still has the capacity to kill." The operation's success will test Aznar's oft-quoted assurances that the conflict can be resolved by police, that there is no political problem, and therefore no need to negotiate a change in the Basque country's status. "There is no political dialogue with terrorists. We have no historic conflict to resolve," he said earlier this year.

While both ETA and the Basque Nationalist Party theoretically favor independence, the PNV would be content (for awhile) with more respect and attention from Madrid. Spain argues that Basques already enjoy more autonomy than any other region in Europe, with a police force, Basque-language schools, radio, and television, and a parliament. There are also concerns that any further moves may fuel separatist aspirations in other parts of Spain with strong regional identities.

"We are very critical of Madrid's attitude, because they didn't know how to take advantage of [the ETA cease-fire]," says Gorka Agirre, a senior PNV member. During the truce, he says, Madrid did little to address calls to move Basque prisoners closer to home. The one meeting between ETA and the government yielded little more than evidence of the distance between them and a total absence of trust.

As for ETA, Mr. Agirre says, "We need to convince them there is a better chance of building this country without murder."

Analysts fear the group has hardened its positions since ending the truce, and that moderates in Euskal Herritarrok have lost ground. Arnaldo Otegi, spokesman for the organization says the future lies in keeping a united nationalist front. "We aspire to struggle without weapons or killing, but the experience of two years of truce was really frustrating," he says, adding quickly, "I'm not justifying killing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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