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Thursday, September 17, 1998 Published at 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK

World: Europe

ETA's bloody past

By Spanish Affairs Specialist Jo Episcopo

The Basque separatist group ETA first emerged in the late 1950s as a clandestine resistance movement opposed to the military dictatorship of Spain's General Franco.

Under the Franco regime the Basque people were bitterly persecuted, their unique language was banned and their distinctive culture oppressed.

As a result many Basques went into exile abroad, others joined ETA's fight.

Autonomy moves

When General Franco died in 1976 and democracy was restored in Spain many exiles returned. Spain's new democratic government granted considerable autonomy to the country's regions.

[ image: Franco occupied Basque country in the 1930s]
Franco occupied Basque country in the 1930s
The northern Basque region of 2.5 million people was given it's own parliament, it was granted control over areas like education and tax, and the distinctive Basque language and culture was promoted in schools and communities.

Many people felt autonomy had gone far enough and that with their own political representation (ETA's legal political wing Herri Batasuna was founded in 1978) - ETA no longer had a purpose.

Violence intensifies

But a minority still believed the Basques should have full independence from Spain.

Against the wishes of the majority of those in the Basque region, a much smaller ETA focussed its struggle on fighting for full independence.

ETA's violence intensified with the security forces and politicians becoming the group's main targets.

Dirty war

[ image: Politicians and security forces became ETA's main targets]
Politicians and security forces became ETA's main targets
The former Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez attempted to combat ETA's violence by setting up the GAL - illegal so-called anti-terrorist liberation groups who were responsible for the deaths of 28 suspected ETA members.

At least 10 of those killed had no connection with the armed group. Senior members of Felipe Gonzalez's then government have now been jailed for their role in setting up the GAL.

Peace moves

In 1992 secret talks between ETA members and the then Socialist government took place in Algeria but they failed to end the conflict.

Spain's current centre-right Popular Party government - elected in 1996 - has adopted a hardline approach with ETA and its supporters.

Last December the entire 23 member leadership of ETA's political wing Herri Batasuna were sentenced to seven years each in jail for collaborating with the armed group.

The Ireland effect

The ruling Popular Party has consistently maintained there will be no talks with ETA until it calls an indefinite ceasefire to show it is serious about finding peace. There has been mounting public pressure for ETA to end the conflict.

[ image: Six million took to the streets in anti-ETA protest in 1997]
Six million took to the streets in anti-ETA protest in 1997
In July 1997 an estimated 6 million Spanish people took to the streets to condemn ETA following the brutal kidnapping and murder of a young Basque politician.

The recent events in Northern Ireland have greatly influenced public opinion in Spain.

Moderate Basque nationalist parties have repeatedly called for peace talks citing Northern Ireland as the model to follow. In addition leading members involved in the peace process in northern Ireland have been working closely with Basque politicians.

It is still early days but ETA's offer of an indefinite ceasefire marks the first real step in finding a solution to the 30-year conflict.

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