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Saturday, November 28, 1998 Published at 18:46 GMT

World: Europe

Thousands protest over Basque prisoners

Spain's policy is to keep ETA prisoners away from their supporters

Thousands of demonstrators thronged the streets of Bilbao in northern Spain on Saturday, calling for Basque separatist prisoners to be returned to the region.

Daniel Schweimler: An emotional issue
But Spanish officials say the prisoners will not be moved until it is convinced that the ETA, the Basque separatist movement, has abandoned violence permanently.

The protesters, led by relatives of the prisoners, want more than 500 imprisoned ETA members transferred to the Basque region, following a ceasefire declared by the ETA in September.

Some of the prisoners are as far away as the Canary Islands, with others held in Madrid and in southern Spain.

The strategy of the Spanish authorities has been to keep them away from the Basque region and their main source of political support.

But the families say the situation places an unfair burden on them, forcing them to travel hundreds of kilometres to visit their relatives.

Basque nationalist politicians and trade union representatives joined the families on the demonstration.

Negotiation issue

The future of the prisoners will be one of the first and most important issues on the negotiating table if peace talks between the ETA and the Spanish government get under way.

Those calling for the prisoners to be moved say it would be a symbolic gesture by the government, proving its commitment to the peace process which ETA says it started with its September ceasefire to its 30-year conflict.

In October, the government said it would move four inmates back to the Basque region for what it called humanitarian reasons. All were sick, and had already served a large proportion of their sentences.

The organisers of the demonstration believe the government's move does not go far enough.

Little progress towards a settlement for the Basque region has been made since the ceasefire. The main Basque political parties are still trying to form a coalition government more than a month after regional elections, and formal negotiations cannot get under way until they have done that.

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