Supporters of Basque party rally in norethern Spain

Thousands of supporters of an outlawed Basque party carried out a rally in Bilbao on Friday to press for its inclusion in proposed talks on the decades-old conflict in the troubled region of Spain.

Prominent leaders of the Batasuna party, accused of being part of the armed separatist group ETA, led the procession, which began outside the headquarters of the Basque branch of Spain's ruling party - a gesture seen as a challenge to Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

The Basque Interior Ministry banned a similar rally on Aug. 14 in San Sebastian, but the demonstrators simply changed their route and police let it proceed. That rally degenerated into clashes between protesters and police, with 10 people injured. It had been convened publicly and formally by Batasuna.

This time, the ministry said it saw no reason to bar the rally in Bilbao on grounds that it was convened by pro-independence advocates who said they were acting as private citizens, not members of Batasuna.

Still, Batasuna endorsed the Bilbao demonstration by placing its logo on posters advertising the procession and urging people to attend it.

At the head of the procession, Batasuna leaders carried a large Basque-language banner that read "Now the people, now peace." The slogan alludes to a Batasuna proposal for it to be included in proposed all-party talks - bringing together pro-independence advocates, moderate nationalists and advocates of the status quo - on the future of the Basque region.

Spain's Supreme Court banned Batasuna in 2003 on grounds that it is part of ETA.

The ban on the Aug. 14 rally in San Sebastian was upheld by a court that ruled Batasuna cannot hold political demonstrations because it is a banned organization.

Both of Spain's major mainstream parties - Zapatero's Socialists and the conservative Popular Party - criticized the Basque government for letting the procession go ahead.

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