Thousands of people marched demanding the release of jailed Basque nationalist leader Arnaldo Otegi in San Sebastian last week. | VINCENT WEST


Four years after it gave up violence, the armed separatist group ETA is breathing its last, with many in Spain’s northern Basque region hoping a change in government in Madrid following a year-end election will finally lead to its dissolution.

Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA), which stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom, was born in 1959 in protest against dictator Francisco Franco’s repression of the Basque language and culture.

But what remains of it now? The group, blamed for more than 800 killings in its campaign of bombings and shootings to create a Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France, declared a “definitive end to armed activity.” on 20 October, 2011. The renunciation by the group, which has long been split between those longing to lay down arms and those who preferred to keep up attacks, came after a peace conference that included Basque leaders and former UN chief Kofi Annan.

But before ETA completely dissolves, it has demanded talks over an amnesty. It also wants jailed members regrouped in facilities in the Basque Country instead of being spread out across Spain and France. But both the French and Spanish governments rule out any negotiations with ETA, which they still consider a “terrorist” group.

ETA now has fewer than 30 members at large, police sources on both sides of the border say. “Outside of jails, there is no more ETA,” said a lawyer who has defended several members of the organisation and who spoke on condition of anonymity. Police pressure on ETA has not let up however - in January the authorities arrested five lawyers who were among the top defenders of the 427 jailed members of the group.

The operation hurt ETA’s efforts to “coordinate and maintain discipline” since the lawyers would pass on messages between group members, according to Spain’s chief prosecutor for terrorism cases, Javier Zaragoza. Spanish and French police in May found an arms cache in southwestern France’s coastal town of Biarritz. Experts believe that ETA, to whom the weapons belonged, was planning on handing them over unilaterally in a move aimed at putting the group back in the headlines.
Last month, police in France arrested two suspected ETA leaders, Iratxe Sorzabal, 43, and David Pla, 40, further weakening the group.

“ETA is plunged in an irreversible process of disappearing,” Zaragoza said. The regional government of the Basque Country disagrees however. “ETA still exists. They still issue statements and there are still weapons caches,” said Johan Fernandez, the Basque regional government’s secretary-general of peace and coexistence. He reiterated meanwhile the regional Basque Nationalist Party government’s support for negotiations with ETA.

“We need to channel an orderly end to ETA, so as to guarantee that no weapons remain unaccounted for,” Fernandez said.