AN offer of peace talks from a banned Basque separatist party frustrated widespread hopes of an ETA truce, but showed the guerrilla group's closest political ally trying to wrest the initiative from its gunmen. While Madrid newspapers ridiculed Batasuna's offer as a hollow bid, commentators in Spain's troubled northern Basque region saw the party trying to coax a weakened ETA to the negotiating table. Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi proposed talks on Sunday between France, Spain and ETA to demilitarise the 36-year-old conflict and a referendum in the Basque country on its future. The media had widely speculated he would announce an ETA truce.
To propose that the governments of Madrid and Paris negotiate with a terrorist group to demilitarise the conflict' and release prisoners is pure madness, particularly considering the setbacks suffered by ETA, El Mundo said in an editorial. Branded a terrorist group by the European Union, ETA has killed 850 people since 1968 in a campaign for a Basque state in northern Spain and southwest France. Batasuna shares ETA's aims but denies being its political wing. It was banned last year for not condemning ETA killings. Reeling from a police crackdown, ETA has not killed in over a year although the bombing of a military post on Saturday was a reminder of its threat. Police have arrested more than 100 ETA suspects in 2004, including its alleged leader Mikel Antza. Amid rumours of a rift in ETA, the guerrilla group said it was open to negotiations in October. Shortly afterwards six jailed members called on ETA to abandon its weapons. This is the first time an initiative comes from the political wing (of Basque separatism). ETA's role is no longer at the political and military vanguard, said a senior Basque politician, who asked not to be identified. They are clearly trying to imitate Sinn Fein, he said, referring to the Irish party which helped broker a 1997 IRA ceasefire. He suggested ETA could declare a truce next year. Spain's conservative Popular Party condemned Batasuna for not rejecting violence and said the outlawed group should not even have been allowed to hold a rally to launch its proposal. The Socialist government, which took office in April, has yet to comment officially on Batasuna's proposals, although party spokesmen have played down its importance. While falling short of an ETA truce, Batasuna's proposals contained some new elements. It recognised peace talks would require concessions from all sides and appeared to back plans by the Basque government for a regional referendum - dropping demands this should include southwest France and Navarre.
Batasuna also echoed the Basque government's insistence a truce was necessary for any regional referendum.
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