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Tuesday, November 3, 1998 Published at 15:24 GMT

World: Europe

Spanish Government to talk to ETA

Jose Maria Aznar's government was under pressure to act

The first direct contact between the Spanish Government and the Basque separatist group ETA has been authorised by Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Government officials have said they will talk to the Basque National Liberation Front - an umbrella group comprising ETA and other militant separatists.

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Reports in the Madrid newspaper, El Pais on Sunday, said the government might also talk to Arnaldo Otegi, the main spokesman for ETA's political wing, Herri Batasuna. He has emerged as one of the main characters in the debate over the peace process.

The government wants to see if conditions exist to start a peace process for the northern region modelled on the negotiations in Northern Ireland.

The officials have said they hope to find out if the unconditional ceasefire announced by ETA in September marks a permanent end to the group's violent 30-year independence campaign, in which 800 people were killed.

The prime minister's office said the move was intended to allow ETA to take the necessary steps towards establishing a lasting peace, and to put an end to speculation about what the government was doing to pursue peace.

It had been under some pressure to make a bold move ever since ETA announced its ceasefire. There had also been increasing speculation about contacts the government was supposed to have made with ETA.

The BBC Madrid Correspondent Daniel Schweimler says the government will expect the separatist movement to make the next move, and it will have to be something substantial. Madrid has until now reacted cautiously to the ceasefire, unsure whether it was serious.

The announcement follows elections for the autonomous Basque parliament in October, which passed off peacefully and attracted a record high turnout.

The elections were won by the moderate Basque National Party but politicians close to ETA increased their support.

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Internet Links

Basque Congress for Peace

Interior Ministry of Spain

Basque resources on the internet

Association for Peace in the Basque Country

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