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Peace Push Grows in Disputed Basque Region of Spain


IRUN, Spain — Juan Miguel Goiburu manages a sleek new tourist hotel in the verdant hills of northern Spain. He can be found there every day, a 45-year-old executive in a crisp shirt and tie, wool slacks cinched around a stocky waistline. The very picture, as he likes to say, of a "worthwhile citizen."

But Goiburu is also a former guerrilla leader of the Basque separatists--fighters for a nation of their own in the region of northern Spain that abuts southwestern France. He is a man once hunted by Spanish security agents and then tossed into jail on charges of kidnapping and murder. Beneath his shirt, he still bears scars from a shootout with police.

A sign of just how far Goiburu and the Basque region have come since those days, though, is the small blue ribbon pinned to the executive's sport jacket. Such ribbons are worn these days by Basques demanding freedom for a local businessman who was kidnapped more than 200 days ago by Goiburu's former compatriots in the Basque Homeland and Freedom movement, known by its acronym, ETA.

As Goiburu's transformation suggests, one of the oldest, deepest ethnic conflicts in Europe is undergoing important change these days. Never before in the 27-year armed struggle for Basque independence has the push for peace in the region been so great, nor a solution so close.

"Up until recently, the mainstream parties in Spain believed that the way to solve the Basque problem was through police repression and political isolation," said Jonan Fernandez, head of Elkarri, an independent peace advocacy group. "But great changes are taking place."

The peaceful resolution of the seemingly intractable conflict in South Africa and moves toward peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East are seen here as models for Spain and the Basque people. In addition, more Basque political and business leaders are fed up with the violence, which has made it difficult for the economically depressed region to recover.

"The Basque people, and the people of Spain, have a very strong desire now to turn the page," Fernandez said. "They are demanding solutions, not rhetoric."

To be sure, large obstacles remain, not least among them the Spanish government's unwillingness to negotiate with the ETA and the group's continued armed struggle, which has claimed 750 lives.

But the ETA's might has declined in recent years. It once had 50 military cells operating in Spain and southwestern France; today it has just four, police say.

Yet its potential for violence remains. In the past year, the ETA has staged seven operations, including the assassination of a Popular Party leader in the Basque region and an attempt on the life of the party's chief, Jose Maria Aznar, in Madrid. If Aznar's party wins national elections in March, as expected, he will become Spain's prime minister.

The ETA launched its armed struggle in 1968 under the repressive rule of Gen. Francisco Franco. The dictator's attempt to subjugate the Basque people, and particularly his ban on speaking the Basque language, helped generate broad support for the ETA.

But the death of Franco in 1975 brought democratic reform to Spain and a new constitution, which created 17 largely self-governing regions. Under that "home rule" system, the Basque region today is governed by an autonomous legislature that imposes taxes and controls health services, transportation and public works. It also has its own 7,000-member police force and court system.

The Basque language that Franco tried to destroy now flourishes. The tongue is again taught in schools and spoken by newscasters on television; fluency in both Basque and Spanish is required of civil servants.

Those changes, welcomed by the Basques, have cost the ETA much of its support. The leading political force in the region today is the Basque Nationalist Party, which rejects violence, favoring instead step-by-step moves toward Basque independence.

The ETA remains outlawed, but recent elections indicate that its legal political wing--United People, or HB--has the support of 17% of the region. Recent public opinion polls indicate that 70% of the people in the region consider the ETA's violence unjustified, and 15% say it was justified only in the past.

But even the conservative Basque Nationalist Party acknowledges that attempts by the central government in Madrid to stamp out the ETA by force haven't succeeded and will never succeed, even if the conservative Popular Party replaces the Socialist Party in Spain's elections next year and launches a new crackdown.

"One thing is clear: The solution is not a police solution," said Gorka Agirre, a member of the Basque Nationalist Party national council.

"No matter how hard the police try, they can't solve it," he said. "The ETA is not a bunch of felons and mobsters. They do what they do out of political conviction. That's why I believe there has to be dialogue."

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