Alvaro Barrientos, Associated Press
BILBAO, Spain — After killing more than 800 people across Spain over the last four decades in its drive for an independent state, the Basque separatist group ETA on Thursday said it would lay down its arms — but stopped short of declaring it was defeated.
The historic announcement was made via video by three ETA members wearing trademark Basque berets and masks with slits for their eyes. At the end of the clip, they defiantly raised their fists in the air demanding a separate Basque nation.
Once a force that terrorized the country with shootings and bombings, Europe's last armed militant movement has been both romanticized and vilified. But it had been decimated in recent years by a wave of arrests, declining support among nationalists and repulsion with raw violence, and the announcement had long been expected.
The group has killed 829 people since the late 1960s in a campaign of bombings and shootings aimed at forcing the government to allow creation of an independent Basque homeland straddling provinces of northern Spain and southwest France.
ETA emerged during the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who was obsessed with the idea of Spain as a unified state and suppressed Basque culture, banning the ancient and linguistically unique language — which sounds nothing like Spanish or any other language — and destroying books written in it.
Basques argue they are culturally distinct from Spain and deserve statehood, and arrests of independence sympathizers still prompt crowds to head to the streets clapping in support. But, the wealthy and verdant region also has a large population of non-Basques who consider themselves fully Spanish and have long been opposed to the militants.
The group's most spectacular attack came in 1973, when ETA planted a bomb on a Madrid street after weeks of tunneling, and blew up the car of then Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco. He was killed in the blast that sent the vehicle into the air and left it as smoky debris atop the roof of a nearby building.
ETA became even more violent in the 1980s, shooting hundreds of police officers and politicians, and occasionally killing civilians.
Classified as a terrorist group by Spain, the European Union and the United States, the group's power and ability to stage attacks waned over the last decade, following the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2004 Madrid train bombings by radical Islamists. It has not killed anyone for two years, and recent media reports say it may have as few as 50 fighters, most young and inexperienced.
The carefully choreographed process toward Thursday's announcement began a year ago when its political supporters renounced violence. ETA then called a cease-fire, one of nearly a dozen over the years. This week, international figures such as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan attended a conference that called on ETA to lay down its weapons.
The announcement marks the first time the group has said it was willing to renounce armed struggle, a key demand by from Spain. It comes as the country prepares for general elections on Nov. 20, and some analysts had predicted it would be made to give the ruling Socialist Party a boost as it faces almost certain defeat amid a national unemployment rate of 21 percent, the eurozone's highest.
In its statement, ETA said it had "decided on the definitive end of its armed struggle." But significantly, the group did not suggest that it would dissolve in an unconditional surrender — as Spain has demanded for decades.
Instead, the group said both Spain and France should negotiate with ETA to end the conflict, a demand that Spain has repeatedly said it would not honor.
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