Eta drags its heels on peace


IF THE Basque terrorist group Eta really intends to bring its war with the Spanish state to a close, as its political supporters have insisted it does, it is taking an inordinately long time to do so. Last September, Eta stated that it had ended “offensive military operations” – but not, as it clarified in a later statement, armed actions in self-defence. Three weeks later, its political associates from the banned Batasuna party joined with other pro-independence groups in calling on Eta to make its ceasefire “definitive, permanent and subject to international verification”.

Their international reference point is the so-called “Brussels Declaration”, signed by distinguished world figures ranging from Mary Robinson to Desmond Tutu, which has called for a final Eta ceasefire in similar language, and for an “appropriate” response from the Spanish government. Batasuna leaders have, both then and much more recently, claimed that Eta’s definitive statement would come “by Christmas”, and then by the New Year.

They are still waiting. They now hope, apparently, that their military counterparts may finally oblige with an announcement to coincide with a march calling for the release of Eta’s 700-plus prisoners in Bilbao next Saturday. A South African peace process facilitator, Brian Currin, brought the international group together. He appears to have convinced the Batasuna leadership that their aspirations can best be pursued by exclusively peaceful means. However, he has signally failed to convince the Spanish government of the value of his good offices. Madrid has responded to both Eta’s declaration and Batasuna’s repositioning with understandable suspicion.

The leader of the current Socialist Party (PSOE) administration, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was badly burned when he offered peace talks to Eta in 2005. That peace process was doomed by Eta’s intransigence and by the fierce opposition of Spanish conservatives. It ended with the bombing of Madrid’s airport terminal by Eta in December 2006 with two fatalities.

Nevertheless, his government could be missing a historic opportunity if it continues to ignore the unprecedented statements from Batasuna leaders. Veterans like Rufi Etxeberria and Arnaldo Otegi have made it clear, in interviews with this newspaper among others, that Eta will be defying the wishes of its own supporters if it returns to violence – and, in that event, will find itself totally isolated.

To completely ignore this shift, and prevent a reconstituted and non-violent Batasuna from participating in crucial municipal elections next May, risks pushing this sector back into the arms of those Eta hardliners who are, presumably, responsible for the group’s long delay in making its final statement. The hardliners are also assisted by continuing human rights violations by the Spanish security forces, several of whom were convicted last week of torturing Eta suspects. However, for the Spanish government to move, Eta must now move first and move fast.