Eta reported holding peace talks in Norway


The Basque separatist group ETA and Spanish officials have been holding secret talks at an undisclosed location in Norway to prepare for official peace negotiations, Norwegian television reported yesterday.

Commercial broadcaster TV2 cited anonymous sources in the Norwegian government as confirming that the talks were taking place.

Earlier in the day the Spanish newspaper ABC, citing unnamed experts on the peace process, said the talks were focused on disarming the group, responsible for hundreds of deaths during its four-decade armed struggle for Basque independence.

However, Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba denied "emphatically" that Spain had begun talks with ETA in Oslo, or was preparing a meeting in the Norwegian capital to start negotiations, Europa Pressreported.

"It's not true ... no such contacts exist and not in Oslo," the agency reported him as saying.

ETA declared a permanent ceasefire in March, but peace talks announced in June by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero have not yet begun.

Spanish media say this is largely because the pro-independence party Batasuna, banned for its links to ETA, has not been allowed to take part in separate consultations on the future of the Basque Country.

ABC said Norway was aware of the talks, but the country's foreign ministry declined to confirm or deny the reports.

"We can't say anything about this," Norwegian foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne Lene Dale Sandsten told Reuters.

TV2 said the discussions were being held in a villa outside Oslo.

ETA is listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States and has killed more than 800 people in its campaign for an independent Basque state carved out of northern Spain and southwest France.

So far ETA has not offered to disarm and initial contacts are expected to centre on the location and possible early release of ETA members serving sentences in jails all over Spain.

Norway has a tradition as a peace mediator. It hosted the talks between Israel and the Palestinians that led to the 1993 Oslo accords, which subsequently failed.

In 2002, it helped broker a truce in the two-decade civil war in Sri Lanka between Tamil Tiger separatists and government forces. That deal also broke down earlier this year, but Norway remains involved as a mediator.