- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

VITORIA, Spain — The Basque militant group ETA ended a decades-long campaign of terror, announcing a permanent cease-fire yesterday that closes the door on one of Western Europe’s last armed separatist movements.

In a videotaped statement, three shrouded ETA members said they were laying down their weapons to promote democracy in the northern Spanish region. The news prompted jubilation across Spain, where ordinary citizens say they can hardly believe the end has come for a group blamed for more than 800 deaths and $15.5 billion in damage since the 1960s.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has made granting more autonomy to Spain’s regions a key goal, expressed caution and hope at ETA’s statement. He was evasive when asked whether he would start negotiating with ETA under an offer he made last year, contingent on the group’s renouncement of violence.

“Any peace process after so many years of horror and terror will be long and difficult,” he told parliament. Mr. Zapatero said that until now, Spain’s political parties had been joined in pain over ETA violence. “Now I trust we will be joined in hope.”

The cease-fire was seen as a huge victory for Mr. Zapatero, but his critics maintained a hard line, saying they would fight to ensure the government does not give away too much.

“One cannot pay a political price for peace. If we were to do so, terrorism would have won,” said Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative opposition Popular Party.

ETA, established in the late 1960s, campaigned to carve out an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.

ETA “has decided to declare a permanent cease-fire as of March 24, 2006,” the statement said. “The aim of [the cease-fire] is to promote a democratic process in the Basque country and to build a new framework in which our rights as a people will be recognized.”

The radical Basque newspaper Gara said it also was in possession of another, complementary ETA statement, but would not publish it or comment on it until today.

The announcement set off quiet celebrations across the country.

“It’s the news we were waiting for for many years. It’s the best news I have received lately,” said Jose Felix Urbano, 52, an administrative worker in Vitoria, capital of the Basque region. “I hope that from here on I can live in a normal country.”

Barbara Durkhop, the widow of ETA victim Enrique Casas, killed in 1984, said she was hopeful but nervous.

“The first thing I thought was that now there will be no more deaths,” she told Spanish television station Quatro.

ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom, has announced cease-fires in the past but never one it has called permanent.

Over the years, ETA mostly has targeted security force members, although in the 1990s it increasingly began to kill politicians. In 1995, in one of its most audacious plots, it tried to assassinate Jose Maria Aznar, then an opposition leader who would go on to become prime minister.

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