MADRID: A decade after Basque separatist group ETA renounced the use of arms, the northern Spanish region is still trying to turn the page on decades of bloodshed. In a video released on October 20, 2011, three masked ETA leaders announced that the group classified as a terrorist organization by the European Union “has decided the definitive cessation of its armed activity”.
“It is time to look at the future with hope. It is also time to act with responsibility and courage,” they added, raising their fists in the air at the end of the video. The announcement put an end to western Europe’s last armed insurgency. “After ten years, we have advanced…but there are still wounds that have not healed,” regional leader Inigo Urkullo of the moderate Basque nationalist PNV party wrote in an opinion column published Sunday.
Created in 1959 at the height of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship which repressed Basque culture and language, ETA is accused of killing more than 850 people in its fight for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France. Its decision to lay down its arms was a “major turning point” for the Basque separatist movement, said political scientist Rafael Leonisio Calvo, the author of a book about ETA. “It was a surprise, particularly since it was a unilateral announcement without any trade-offs…but in reality it was the result of a long process,” he told AFP.
Weakened by arrests
Several weeks before the announcement, secret negotiations were held between ETA leaders and the Spanish government via intermediaries. The framework for the talks was agreed with the Socialist prime minister of Spain at the time, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, one of ETA’s historic leaders, Josu Urrutikoetxea, told AFP in a recent interview. The talks resulted in an international peace conference held in October 2011 in the seaside Basque city of San Sebastian where ETA was urged to end its armed struggle to “promote reconciliation”. At the time ETA was severely weakened by arrests of its top leaders and seizures of its weapons.
The group was also being pushed by its political wing-under pressure from Basque public opinion-to “change its strategy” and drop violence, said Eguzki Urteaga, a sociologist with the University of the Basque Country. “During the Franco era, ETA benefited from a sort of aura among part of the population that was opposed to the regime,” he told AFP. “But then rejection of the armed struggle did not stop growing, especially after 1995 when ETA decided to expand its targets to include members of civil society.”
This view is shared by Calvo, who said ETA was at a “dead end” at the time. “Polls showed that even among separatist voters, support for ETA had dropped considerably and become a minority,” he added. ETA continued its pacification after it announced it had dropped violence. In April 2017 the group handed in its weapons and the following year it apologized to its victims, just days before it formally declared its dissolution.
Still, resentments persist. Victims’ groups denounce jubilant ceremonies held for ETA members on their release from prison and complain that some 300 ETA killings have not been resolved. Meanwhile, family members of ETA prisoners complain that many are still being held in jails far from the Basque Country.
A protest planned for September to demand the release from jail of ETA member Henri Parot, who is serving a lengthy sentence for his role in 39 killings was called off after it sparked counter demonstrations. Arnaldo Otegi, leader of far-left Basque pro-independence party EH Bildu which is seen the heir of ETA’s former political wing, on Monday apologized for the “suffering endured” by ETA victims. “It never should have happened,” he added in what was seen as an attempt to foster further rapprochement in the region. – AFP