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Wednesday, July 21, 1999 Published at 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK

World: Europe

Changing face of Basque politics

Jubilant supporters met the released prisoners

By Madrid Correspondent Daniel Schweimler

Just hours after they were released from jail, the 22 former leaders of the Basque separatist party, Herri Batasuna, were involved in the first of many meetings with their party to catch up with political developments.

Much has changed in the 20 months since they were imprisoned, accused of collaborating with the illegal Basque separatist organisation, ETA.

Not only has their party changed its name to Euskal Herritarrok but ETA declared a ceasefire in September last year which, so far, has held.

But the efforts since then by the Spanish government and Basque nationalists to establish a permanent peace in the troubled Basque region have been fraught with difficulties and progress has been slow.

Government representatives and members of ETA have met in secret for preliminary talks but neither side has been willing, until now, to meet the others' demands.

Permanent ceasefire

One of the demands of Basque nationalists was the release from jail of the former Herri Batasuna leadership.

The government in Madrid will hope that, now the constitutional court has done that, the atmosphere in the negotiations will improve.

But they will want something concrete in return.

They are asking ETA to declare their ceasefire permanent and to lay down their arms.

While they do not realistically expect to get all they are asking for, they will expect a radical move in that direction.

What is not clear is what the former Herri Batasuna leadership thought of developments while they were in prison and what influence they will have on future progress.

As they left jail, to be met by jubilant family and political supporters, some spoke of the positive effect their release would have on the efforts to establish peace.

But others called for the resignation of Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja, who they hold responsible for putting them in jail in the first place.

New faces

While they've been inside, a new leadership has developed and established relations with the Spanish government, the Basque people and other political parties in the region.

The most prominent figure is the young, articulate Arnaldo Otegi, who has overseen the moves to establish peace and seen his party increase its share of the vote in regional elections.

He was "on holiday outside Europe" when the former Herri Batasuna leadership emerged from jail.

Several more meetings and a number of rallies are planned in the Basque region in the next few days. when the newly-liberated men and women will be gauging the changed mood.

The Spanish government will meanwhile be watching developments very closely to see just who it is they will be negotiating with in the next few months.

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Internet Links

Spain's Interior Minstry (in Spanish)

Euskal Herritarrok (in Basque)

Basque Cuntry Journal

Association for Peace in the Basque Country

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