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Basque Separatists Borrow Irish Tactics

Spain: Good Friday pact inspires ETA rebels to halt attacks and work with others to press for independence.

October 23, 1998|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VITORIA, Spain — After five attempts on his life, Juan Maria Atutxa, the towering, no-nonsense boss of the Basque regional police, has good cause to welcome the first open-ended truce in Europe's oldest guerrilla conflict.

Not only is his life safer and his job easier, Atutxa also applauds the news for a reason that disturbs the Spanish rulers whose law and order he has so loyally enforced: He shares the guerrillas' dream of Basque sovereignty and hopes that the cease-fire will foster peace talks to bring it closer.

Inspired by Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord, the Basque Homeland and Freedom movement, known by its Basque initials as ETA, began an "indefinite and total cessation" of armed attacks Sept. 18 and called on unarmed Basques to take "equally significant steps" in "a new political stage" of the independence struggle.

The unilateral truce, the biggest breakthrough here in three decades of bloodshed, has redrawn battle lines in Basque Country, putting Spain's central government in Madrid on the defensive in a contest that it thought it could win by force.

Basques who once took to the streets to condemn ETA terrorism are cautiously hailing the truce as an opportunity to press a nationalist cause long rebuffed by Madrid as the agenda of outlaws. The new Basque alignment unites the leftist ETA's political wing and Atutxa's conservative, nonviolent Basque Nationalist Party, which runs the regional government.

"If you ask me about life, I'm closer to those who respect life," Atutxa, the regional interior minister, said in an interview. "But if you ask me about self-determination, I'm closer to those who understand that this is also our right, and they include the political arm of ETA.

"The Basque people are natural-born deal makers. We can make a pact with the devil and hold our head high," he added, laughing. "Just because the devil is for self-determination is no reason to say I'm against it--as long as the struggle comes without the noise of pistols and bombs."

Premier Is Caught Off Guard by Truce

Caught off guard by the truce, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has ruled out peace talks until the guerrillas surrender their weapons. "We cannot give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who has spent more than 30 years killing," he has told parliament.

But Aznar's center-right government is under pressure here and elsewhere in Spain to offer concessions that would open an Irish-style peace process for the 2.2 million people of this heavily industrialized region astride the Spanish-French border.

The government made a small concession last week--promising to move four ailing ETA convicts to prisons in Basque Country so they can be treated at hospitals of their choice and to commute the sentence of a fifth convict. Spain's policy of keeping jailed guerrillas dispersed and far from home is a major ETA grievance.

Conversations in cafes, at dinner tables and on radio call-in shows across Basque Country are alive with hopeful speculation that the month-old truce is the beginning of the end for a conflict that has touched nearly every Basque family and blighted Spain's remarkable transition to democracy, which began with the 1975 death of dictator Francisco Franco.

The fighting has claimed at least 881 lives since 1968--about two-thirds of them police officers, judges, politicians and bystanders slain by separatist bombs and bullets. More than 10,000 suspected rebels have been arrested, and 616 remain in prison. Gunmen hired by Spain's Socialist rulers in the 1980s kidnapped and executed 27 ETA suspects--nine were later determined to be innocent victims.

"Our great hope now is that the two sides will talk and each will give up something for the sake of peace," said Inigo de Lecea Gravalos, a 37-year-old Basque lawyer in Bilbao whose father, a businessman, was wounded by ETA gunmen during a labor dispute. "I don't want my children growing up in this fearful environment."

Aznar's problem, however, is that Madrid has little to offer the restive Basque nationalists short of outright independence, which Spain's political establishment and most of its people oppose.

Under Spain's post-Franco constitution, which created largely self-governing regions that now number 19, three Basque provinces are ruled by an autonomous government that imposes taxes and controls health services, transportation and public works. The Basque language that Franco banned is again taught in schools and spoken by newscasters on television.

Atutxa's 7,000-member Basque police force, formed since 1982, has exclusive authority in the region to fight all crimes, except a few--such as terrorism and drug smuggling--that it must battle alongside the Spanish police. The war against ETA is a joint effort--one that Atutxa has decided, after eight years at it, cannot be won by repression alone.

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