Spain's ETA promises cease-fire but many don't believe them

Spain's Basque separatist ETA has promised a cease-fire. But it comes with conditions and the government appears to have rejected the offer.

Associated Press Television Network/AP
In this image made from video, masked members of the militant Basque separatist group ETA raise their fists as they declare a permanent cease-fire in a video distributed to Spanish media Monday, Jan. 10, in what it called a firm step toward ending its bloody decades-long independence fight, but Spain's government quickly dismissed the announcement and demanded ETA disband outright.

Spain's ETA, a separatist group that has fought a low-intensity insurgency for Basque independence for over 50 years promised a cease-fire earlier today that was widely viewed in Spain as a tactical step, not a permanent renunciation of violence.

“This is more of a reversible truce," says Ramon Zallo, a former ETA militant from the 1960s who is now a communications professor at Basque Country University. “ETA is not defeated. It’s militarily hurt and politically tired, but to expect ETA to just surrender and to ask for forgiveness is just unrealistic.”

Three hooded militants read a statement that promised peace, while appearing to make it conditional on allowing a Basque independence vote, something the government and a majority of Spaniards oppose.

“ETA insists on putting a price on peace,” said Spanish Vice President and Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. “The only statement we want to read is one in which ETA declares an irreversible and definitive end [to violence], and it’s clear that it hasn’t done what we expected.”

Long-time observers of the ETA and of Batasuna, the outlawed political group that plays Sinn Fein to the ETA's IRA, say the announcement is likely tied to upcoming local and national elections in Spain. Batasuna is eager to be allowed to participate and at least win a share of power in Basque regions and has successfully leaned on the ETA to make that possible.

“There are a lot of people from Batasuna that live from politics and (the outlawing) is affecting them profoundly,” says Oscar Elía, an analyst with the Madrid-based Strategic Studies Group. “ETA is trying to sneak Batasuna into the election as part of its strategy to regain political and economic breathing room through institutions, but it is also trying to decrease tension within the nationalist camp frustrated with ETA.”

Long time opponents of the separatists dismissed the overture. “This is a trap. This is not the end of ETA’s terrorism. They are conditioning the cease-fire to a referendum,” says Mikel Buesa, an economist in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid who has written extensively about ETA and terrorism financing. in 2000, Mr. Buesa's brother was shot dead by the group.

Political dividends

While the ETA has promised -- and failed to deliver -- ceasefires before, analysts say the highly unpopular government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and Mr. Rubalcaba, who is expected to run in the 2012 general election, have little to lose by lending the separatists an ear, since they'd get much of the credit if the ETA’s bloody tenure comes to an end.

But Mr. Elia warns there are political risks, too. “The more the government gives hope that a negotiation is possible, the longer ETA will feel it can accomplish its political objectives and the longer terrorism will continue.”

The ETA is trying to buy itself time, says Mr. Zallo, the former militant. But he says that's not necessarily to relaunch armed struggle, as most in Spain believe. “ETA knows that its statement today is insufficient to open a peace negotiation. It seems more like they were forced into the decision internally by Batasuna.”

The group has been moving toward Monday’s announcement for at least a year. The ETA, which has killed more than 825 people in 51 years of fighting for the independence of two Spanish regions and a sliver of southern France it considers the Basque fatherland, has been battered by police action throughout the decade.

Waning influence

Polls and growing Basque support for integration with the rest of Spain show that ETA’s relevance is waning. The group's Batasuna political wing was outlawed in 2003. With municipal elections coming up in May, Batasuna is desperate to participate or risk withering away completely.

The government agrees. Within ETA, “there are expectations related to participating in politics. Batasuna has two options to return to political life. Either ETA gives up for good, and it’s clear we are not there yet, or Batasuna breaks its relations with ETA, which hasn’t happened either,” said Rubalcaba.

The government has no incentive to negotiate because it’s winning militarily and Spaniards overwhelmingly oppose making any concessions to ETA, which has broken cease-fire promises in the past.

Pressure from Nobel laureates, political wing

Last spring Batasuna began pressuring its militant core to declare a cease-fire, along with a group of international mediators that included four Nobel peace laureates. Militants finally declared a truce in September.

Batasuna has grown more assertive in standing up to its militant cousins, especially after the group unilaterally broke a truce declared to negotiate peace with the government by bombing the parking lot of Madrid’s newly opened airport terminal in December 2006. Two people were killed then. Then, Batasuna was broadly condemned by a Basque society tired of violence.

If Batasuna makes a full break from ETA, it won't be the first time a political activists have abandoned the armed wing. In 2001, ETA associates broke with the group to create of Basque independence party that condemns violence.

“If you ask me whether this is the end, no. If you ask me whether this is what Spanish society expects, definitively not," Rubalcaba said.

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