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.
"We have an historical opportunity to find a just and democratic solution for the centuries old political conflict. Dialogue and agreement should outline the new cycle, over violence and repression. The recognition of the Basque Country and the respect for the will of the people should prevail over imposition," the ETA statement said.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hailed the news as a victory for Spanish democracy. In a brief appearance before reporters, however, he made no mention of prospects for dialogue with ETA.
Talks in 2006 went nowhere and ETA ended a cease-fire after just a few months with a thunderous blast that killed two people sleeping in cars at a parking garage in Madrid airport.
Zapatero credited his and previous governments' fight against ETA, police and soldiers who have died in it, and thanked France for its collaboration. He remembered all the people killed in ETA shootings and bombings, and their families.
"At this moment, I'm particularly thinking of the Basque society. I am convinced that from now on it will finally enjoy a coexistence that is not anchored on fear or intimidation. It will be a fully free and peaceful coexistence," Zapatero said.
He added: "With the restraint that history imposes on us, we are today living legitimate satisfaction over the victory of democracy, law and reason. It is a satisfaction in mourning for the pain caused by violence that should never have happened and that should never happen again."
Zapatero's former Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the man most people credit with coordinating the legal and police battle to bring ETA to its knees, said, "If only this day had come before."
Rubalcaba stepped down as minister recently in order to run as candidate for the Socialist party in next month's general elections. Zapatero is not running for re-election.
Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, who is widely expected to become the next prime minister, said his party welcomed the news but said Spain would only be fully at ease when ETA disbands.
"We think this is a very important step but Spaniards' peace of mind will only be complete with the irreversible disbanding of ETA and its complete dissolution," he added.
The ETA statement said talks with Spain and France — the independent homeland the group has fought to create includes part of southwest France — should address "the resolution of the consequences of the conflict." This language usually refers to the around 700 ETA prisoners held in Spanish and French jails, and ETA weapons.
The announcement came just three days after several international figures, including Annan and Ireland's Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, attended a conference on ETA in the Basque city of San Sebastian and called on the group to end the violence.
Adams welcomed ETA's statement Thursday.Comment on this story
"We called upon ETA to make a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action and to request talks with the governments of Spain and France to address exclusively the consequences of the conflict," Adams said.
"I believe that their statement today meets that requirement and I would urge the governments of Spain and France to welcome it and agree to talks exclusively to deal with the consequences of the conflict," he said.
Woolls reported from Madrid. Ciaran Giles and Alan Clendenning contributed from Madrid.