The Basque separatist group ETA yesterday declared a permanent cease-fire and pledged to step away from decades of violence, a major breakthrough that could end Europe's only current armed conflict.
The announcement came at a time of military and political weakness for the militant organization that has fought for independence from Spain for nearly 40 years and claimed hundreds of victims in bombings and sabotage.
It follows a fierce crackdown under the previous Spanish government and a period of rumored negotiation, officially denied, with the current administration. ETA has also seen its popular support fade amid public outrage over deadly bombings in Madrid two years ago by Islamic radicals.
''This is very good news for all Spaniards," Vice President Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said as first reports of the truce swept the country. Urging ''prudence," she added: ''We very much hope this is the beginning of the end."
Reactions cleaved along political lines in this bitterly polarized country. While the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero responded with cautious elation, the conservative opposition noted that ETA's move fell short of surrender and was therefore nothing more than a ruse. Ordinary Spaniards were full of tentative hope.
ETA declared the cease-fire, effective tomorrow, through a videotaped statement released around midday and broadcast on Basque and Spanish television. Unlike two previous cease-fires that failed, this declaration uses the term ''permanent" and makes no conditions.
In the announcement, three members of the guerrilla group, wearing white masks and the black berets typical of Basque country, sit at a table bearing the words Euskal Herria, a reference in Basque to a greater Basque homeland. The statement was read, unusually, by a woman, who sat in the middle.
The group said its purpose was to ''drive the democratic process" in the Basque country that ensures ''the development of all political options."
''ETA has shown its desire and will that the process now begun should reach a conclusion and thus achieve true democracy in the Basque country, overcoming long years of violence and constructing a peace based on justice," the statement said.
A 1979 referendum established the Basque Autonomous Community on the Bay of Biscay near the French border, comprising the provinces of Alava, Vizcaya, and Guipuzcoa. It has its own police force and education and health systems.
Basques, who today number about 2.2 million in Spain, are descendants of what may be one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe. Polls indicate about half favor a free state more loosely associated with Spain. Many who advocate statehood, however, do not support ETA's violence.
ETA -- the initials are an acronym for Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language -- declared cease-fires in 1989 and 1998, but negotiations that followed collapsed within a few months, reports Boston Globe.
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