Bringing an end to Eta campaign

Sat, Nov 22, 2008, 00:00

THE SPANISH and French authorities are understandably jubilant about the detention of the man accused of being the leader of the Basque terrorist group Eta.

But they are wise not to have made any rash claims about final victory because such assertions have been shown to be hollow in the past. Miguel de Garikoitz Azpiazu Rubina, alias "Txeroki", was arrested near Lourdes in France on Monday. He is alleged to have killed a Spanish judge in 2001 and two Spanish civil guard officers on French soil last year and is suspected to have become the commander of Eta's military section in 2003. He probably became overall political leader last May after the arrest of a like-minded comrade. It is believed that he opposed Eta's 2006 ceasefire and successfully undermined those leaders who were supporting it.

Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said his detention would cause "great damage" to the terrorist organisation but warned that Eta remains "capable of carrying out attacks". Zapatero is right to be cautious, though the temptation to go further must have been acute. Eta is undoubtedly at one of its weakest points in both military and political terms. When the organisation ended its 1998/99 ceasefire, the group killed 33 people within the next 12 months. In the 16 months since Eta officially abandoned its 2006/07 truce, it has killed seven people. Although every victim is a victim too many, this figure clearly reflects a dramatic decline in terrorist capacity. Good police intelligence has also led to the arrests not only of existing Eta units but of others set up to replace them.

Meanwhile, support for Eta in its heartlands is plummeting. Many Basque pro-independence radicals no longer see any future for "armed struggle" in a world conditioned by the 9/11 attacks and where the IRA has decommissioned. Nevertheless, the roots of the Basque conflict remain deep and tangled. Spain's refusal to recognise full Basque nationhood still rankles with many peacefully-inclined Basque citizens. Among Basque youth in particular a small but hard core of support for Eta remains solid.

The bloody provocation of terrorism led some previous Madrid administrations to engage in dirty war strategies which have prolonged the conflict. Zapatero insists that his security forces adhere to democratic principles. However, there are concerns that Spain's "judicial offensive" against alleged Eta supporters, which saw two Basque political parties and one NGO banned in September alone, constitute a threat to human rights. There is strong evidence that the anti-terrorist legal net is now so wide that a number of innocent people are being swept into prison. According to Amnesty International, torture is still "persistent", though not "systematic", in Spain's interrogation of suspects.

The kind of efficient police co-operation between France and Spain which led to the arrest of Azpiazu could lead a majority of Eta militants to recognise the futility of violence in a democracy. But such an advance could be undermined by judicial short-cuts which abuse human rights.