- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — This city’s tourist brochure skips over a crucial fact: that San Sebastian and the rest of Spanish Basque country have been gripped by decades of separatist violence that turned neighbors into enemies, held businesses hostage and transformed quaint villages into silent and fearful outposts.

But after killing more than 800 people in an elusive quest for an independent nation, Western Europe’s last major homegrown terrorist movement may be going out of business.

The Basque Homeland and Freedom, more commonly known as ETA, last month declared a cease-fire with a crucial semantic difference from its many broken truces of the past: This one, the terrorist organization vowed in a statement, would be “permanent.”

“We’ve never been so close to the end of violence and terrorism. It’s an inexorable path,” said Gorka Landaburu, a prominent Basque journalist who survived an ETA assassination attempt five years ago. “ETA has no other way out but ending violence.”

Mr. Landaburu and other analysts cite a confluence of factors making peace more likely today. The Franco-era terrorist organization is at one of its weakest points ever with its leaders in prison, its membership dwindling and its weapons caches seized, thanks to police crackdowns in Spain and in neighboring France. It has not killed since 2003.

ETA also is losing its last shreds of public support after 38 years of robberies, extortion and assassinations. The September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the Madrid bombings of 2004 only strengthened national repulsion for all brands of terrorism. Even die-hard Basque separatists are tired of violence.

Equally important, some observers argue, the government of Prime Minister Jose Louis Rodriguez Zapatero, of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, is offering an unprecedented overture for peace.

Last year, Mr. Zapatero obtained parliamentary approval to open official talks with ETA if the group renounced violence. If the government concludes that the group is serious about its cease-fire — Mr. Zapatero suggested as much last week — he will ask for parliamentary approval to begin disarmament talks.

“The truce comes at a good time for both ETA and Zapatero,” said Jean Chalvidant, a French specialist on Basque terrorism. “It’s vital in the next elections for Zapatero to show he’s been able to succeed where previous leaders have failed.”

In a city that has long been the hub of pro-independence rallies, there is little palpable evidence of ETA’s shadow or of long-standing Basque dreams for an independent nation in northern Spain and parts of southern France.

Australian and British tourists stroll along San Sebastian’s elegant boardwalk, watching the Atlantic Ocean curl below. Only in the old quarter are there lingering reminders that this is no ordinary European city.

“Attention tourists,” reads one green flier plastered on many nicked stone buildings. “You are not in Spain. You are not in France. You are in Basque country.”

Although the separatist-leaning Basque Nationalist Party or PNV heads the regional government, polls indicate that only a third of Basques want to secede from Spain.

Even those who do, such as 21-year-old Javier Apalatergui, are pleased with the ETA truce.

“I think Basque country wants to fight for its rights, but through a democratic way,” said Mr. Apalatergui. Sporting long hair and jeans, he was bar-hopping in the old quarter one evening.

“We don’t need ETA. And I think [the separatists] have realized this.”

Few think the peace process will be easy. In an interview published in Spain’s El Mundo newspaper last week, Mr. Zapatero appeared to rule out two key ETA demands: total amnesty for Basque prisoners and a referendum on secession from Spain. A third demand, the expulsion of Spanish police and military from Basque regions, also does not appear on the horizon.

ETA’s political wing, the Batasuna party, remains banned in Spain, and on the terrorist lists in the United States and the European Union. Mr. Chalvidant and others warn that ETA may use this cease-fire to rearm and recruit new members, as it has done in the past.

Perhaps the most difficult task will be reconciling the region’s scarred and divided population.

Mr. Zapatero reportedly has tapped British and Irish leaders for lessons on the shaky Northern Ireland peace accord. But in some ways, the two separatist struggles have little in common.

“In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants live in separate zones. Not here,” said Eneko Goya, a PNV deputy in the Basque regional government.

Former ETA member Joxean Agirre, who spent 18 years in prison for assassination, says he now is treated cordially on San Sebastian’s streets.

“People may not agree with me,” said Mr. Agirre, now a prominent activist for ETA prisoner rights. “But the first priority for all of us is to build peace.”

But in the small town of Amurrio, a two-hour drive from San Sebastian, Santiago Abascal, 55, checked off the many ETA death threats against him. Three years ago, Basque extremists burned Mr. Abascal’s clothing shop to the ground. They daubed his horses with ETA slogans.

Today, Mr. Abascal lives with round-the-clock bodyguards, as does his 29-year-old son, a deputy in the Basque regional parliament. The reason: his family supports the Popular Party, which takes a tough line on terrorism. Only law and order, Mr. Abascal argued, can resolve the Basque conflict.

“This government thinks they can negotiate with terrorists, but negotiations aren’t possible,” Mr. Abascal said. “They assassinated, and now they must pay.”

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