Basque separatist says he is against return to violence


ARNALDO OTEGI, the veteran leader of Batasuna, the banned Basque pro-independence party, gave an unprecedented interview yesterday, which marks a significant advance in the excruciatingly slow peace process under way in the region.

He said that he and his movement would “oppose” any return to violence, under any foreseeable circumstances, by the militant group Eta, which announced six weeks ago that it had “ceased offensive operations”.

“There is no other road to independence than through peaceful and democratic means,” Otegi said.

He expressed the hope that the Spanish state and security forces, which he accuses of repression and torture of suspects, would mend its ways. But, crucially, he did not make his own movement’s rejection of violence conditional on any moves by Madrid, insisting: “This phase of the process is unilateral.”

In that spirit, he called on Eta to clarify its recent statements, hitherto decidedly ambiguous, and declare that its ceasefire was “unilateral, permanent and verifiable by the international community”.

He refused to be drawn on “condemning” Eta, and did not explicitly call for the group to disband. But he said there was no place in Basque society for Eta’s so-called “revolutionary tax”, extorted from local businesses and individuals. It is hard to see how the group could survive without such funds.

He also ruled out any future support from Batasuna for kale borroka, the “street struggle”, a campaign of political vandalism and intimidation orchestrated among radical Basque teenagers over the last 20 years.

The lengthy and detailed interview is almost as remarkable for the place it appeared as for its contents.

Otegi chose to talk to El Pais, a Madrid newspaper generally close to Spain’s governing Socialist Party (PSOE), rather than his usual outlet, the Basque radical newspaper Gara.

The PSOE prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, responded coolly last night.

“Deeds are more important than words,” he said, but added: “Better these words than others.”

But the very fact that El Paiswould publish such an interview is a strong indication, in the smoke-and-mirrors stage at which the peace process is currently stuck, that there is more movement behind the scenes than the official PSOE position suggests.

Otegi is in prison, on charges of reorganising Batasuna’s illegal structures, and he has generally been portrayed in the paper as Eta’s puppet, too weak to play the Gerry Adams-type role it says he covets.

The tone of both questions and answers in this interview was very different, with Otegi claiming that this ceasefire is distinct from the failed processes of 1998-1999 and 2006 because, on this occasion, the broad membership of Batasuna is determined to pursue a completely unarmed strategy, regardless of what Eta says or does.

The main Spanish opposition party, the ultra-conservative Partido Popular predictably totally dismissed Otegi’s statements.

But the interview was welcomed by a broad spectrum of Basque nationalist parties as strong evidence that this ceasefire really does mark a new departure.