- Associated Press - Monday, September 6, 2010

MADRID (AP) — How many cease-fires can you announce and break before everyone stops paying attention?

Spaniards inured to cease-fire announcements by the violent Basque separatist group ETA were mulling whether the latest one holds anything different or will fail like the others to end Europe’s last major armed militancy.

The government on Monday swiftly ruled out holding negotiations on a Basque homeland and rejected Sunday’s truce as a desperate gambit by an extremist group staggering after the arrests of its leaders.

Spain claimed the cease-fire was just another gambit by ETA in order to buy time, regroup and rearm. And a major newspaper, El Mundo, ran a cartoon Monday of a hooded ETA gunman in a traditional Basque beret offering an olive branch — albeit one that stuck out of a gun barrel.

Since launching its campaign for an independent Basque homeland in the late 1960s and killing more than 825 people in the process, ETA has announced 11 cease-fires, the last of them in 2006, which it called permanent.

Promising peace talks with the government ensued but quickly went nowhere, and nine months later ETA reverted to violence with a massive car bomb that killed two Ecuadorean immigrants in a parking garage at Madrid’s Barajas Airport.

This time, inside, not outside, forces appear to have prompted three masked ETA members to declare a cease-fire Sunday in front of a ETA sign with a snake slithering around an ax. While ETA historically has called the shots, the pressure for a new halt to violence seems to have come from the group’s own political supporters.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Monday that when ETA shocked Spain by abruptly ending the 2006 cease-fire, “many people in the Basque nationalist movement woke up and said, ‘With this ETA we are not going to get anywhere.’”

Those divisions have been growing as ETA’s banned political wing, Batasuna, apparently came to the conclusion that bombs and bullets were doing nothing to achieve the goal of Basque independence.

ETA’s last deadly attack was a July 2009 car bomb that killed two policemen on the island of Mallorca. But Spain has no tolerance for terrorism now after Islamic militants killed 191 people in a 2004 train bombing in Madrid.

On Friday, Batasuna and a more moderate pro-independence party called Eusko Alkartasuna appealed to ETA to call a cease-fire that could be independently verified. They did so in writing, which was unprecedented.

Paddy Woodworth, an Irish expert on the Basque conflict, wrote Monday that most Basque nationalists now “are persuaded that ETA is a crippling debit, not an asset.”

Rogelio Alonso, a political science professor at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid, said ETA’s announcement was not a cease-fire at all because all the group did was say it had decided months ago not to stage “offensive armed actions.” It gave no timetable and did not say whether the cease-fire was temporary or open-ended.

Batasuna, which was banned in 2003 on grounds it is part of ETA, is desperate to be able to field candidates in Basque local elections scheduled for next year. Otherwise, it faces political oblivion because the party is not represented in the regional legislature or in Madrid, and misses the subsidies that come with holding seats.

But in order to become legitimate, it must renounce the ETA or persuade ETA to renounce violence.

Joseba Arregui, a former minister in the Basque regional government in the 1980s, said the two sides of the pro-independence movement — one armed with weapons, the other with microphones — are in disarray and at each other’s throats.

“They are both weak and blackmailing each other,” Mr. Arregui said.

Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this story from Dublin.

 

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