Separatists Use Youth Gangs To Make Their Point in Spain

Backers of a breakaway region turn to attacks on fellow Basques

The windows to Maria Teresa Castells's Lagun bookshop in the heart of San Sebastian's old quarter are boarded up with planks of wood.

The scorched brickwork surrounding them is evidence of recent firebomb attacks by the young radical Basque separatists who are bringing increased violence to the streets of this elegant coastal city in northern Spain.

Over the past month, the Lagun has been attacked five times by hooded youths, supporters of the armed Basque separatist group ETA, who are determined to drive this bookseller out of her shop.

The reason? A member of her staff dared to voice his opposition to ETA's campaign of killings, bombings, and kidnappings, which has left nearly 800 people dead over the past 28 years.

The group, which is fighting for a separate Basque state made up of four northern Spanish provinces and an area of south-west France, has already killed six people this year. Supreme Court Judge Rafael Martinez Emperador was gunned down outside his home in Madrid Feb. 10. The most recent victim, a policeman, was killed Monday.

With violence worsening, politicians in the region agreed Tuesday to meet for talks on Friday in an attempt to form a united front against ETA.

Neighbor against neighbor

Outside the Lagun bookshop, four local police officers stand guard, cradling riot guns, heads protected by red helmets and faces hidden behind tight-fitting black balaclava helmets.

Inside the shop Ms. Castells, a silver-haired woman, points to the white paint spattered across bookshelves and down the narrow aisles between them.

"That was one of the first attacks," she explains. "That time they smashed the windows and tipped paint over everything. A few days later they started trying to burn us out with Molotov cocktails. One time they pulled all the books out of the shop window and burned them in the middle of the square."

The Lagun's attackers are part of an increasingly violent group of Basque youths that is carrying ETA's campaign onto the streets of the region's towns and cities. Separatist violence, once directed solely against government representatives, is increasingly pitting Basque against Basque.

Damage to public and private property last year has been estimated at more than $9 million. Police figures show the number of incidents of street violence and vandalism grew by nearly 50 percent in 1996.

Those who voice their opposition to ETA are increasingly becoming targets. Nowhere is this more true than in the narrow streets of San Sebastian's old quarter - which the radical youths consider to be their own territory.

The separatists' call for independence receives most support in the poorer parts of cities and in the small villages and scattered hillside farms where the Basque language, Euskera, remains strong. ETA's legal political ally, the Herri Batasuna Party, gained more than 11 percent of the vote in the Basque region in the March 1996 general election.

Government crackdown

The new center-right Spanish government, headed by Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of the Popular Party, came to power in March 1996 promising to crack down on separatist violence.

A police campaign over the past two months has led to the arrests of more than 80 youths, most of them in their teens.

Interior Ministry officials say they were formed into organized gangs, known as "Y Groups," and received their instructions directly from ETA. They claim that a Basque separatist youth organization called Jarrai is operating as a cover for the Y Groups.

Herri Batasuna spokesman Floren Aoiz, who was himself schooled in Jarrai, denies that the group is behind the violence. "Of course there are members of Jarrai who later become members of ETA," he says. "But that is because they agree with ETA's political aims. There is no proof that the Y Groups even exist, or that ETA is able to organize so many youths in this way."

Mr. Aoiz claims the youth violence is a "spontaneous" reaction to police repression.

At the Lagun bookshop, Castells admits she is scared but says she will not move. This is not the first time her bookshop has been attacked.

When Spain was ruled by dictator Gen. Francisco Franco 25 years ago, the Lagun was famous for selling banned left-wing books. It was raided by police and attacked by gangs of right-wing thugs.

Castells says the new assailants may hold opposite views, but their attitude is basically the same. "For me they are the same kind of people doing the same kind of things," she says. "They just will not accept that other people can think differently to them."

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