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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 March 2006, 00:45 GMT
A new dawn for Spanish politics?
By Jim Fish
BBC News, San Sebastian

Members of the Batasuna party
Following the ceasefire, the diplomatic moves have begun
In a Pamplona hotel, just outside the boundaries of Spain's Basque region, a group of mainly young people are being shepherded for the cameras onto a makeshift stage.

In front of the gold and orange Basque regalia, they blink and giggle nervously into the lights. Their average age must be in the 30s - there are only a few grey hairs to be seen.

What follows is a snapshot of the difficulties littering the road ahead towards peace.

Three of them, two women and a man, step forward in turn to the microphone and read an official statement from the party they lead, Batasuna: first in Basque, then French, and lastly, in Spanish.

This in itself is something of a breakthrough and a challenge.

Batasuna has been formally outlawed by the Spanish government in Madrid for the past three years because of its close ties with the militant group, Eta.

After Wednesday's ceasefire announcement by Eta, the government responded with a demand for deeds, not words, to prove Eta's sincerity.

Moving forwards

If the Batasuna event in Pamplona was meant to be the next exchange in the game of "ping-pong diplomacy" with the Basques, it was - to an observer at least - a let-down.

The Batasuna statement was creaking with words and phrases from the past such as "militants", "struggle" and "solidarity", but with very few concrete signs that a new era has dawned.

Basques hope, like Spain's prime minister, that this is the beginning of the end of their 38-year nightmare

Batasuna's articulate, smoothly-spoken frontman, Pernando Barrena, sheds a little more light.

Eta is sincere, he insists, but like the IRA in Northern Ireland, the peace process here needs real encouragement and engagement from the government in Madrid for a political space to open up and a dialogue to begin.

But if Eta is sincere, and this really is the end of conflict, what is the point of Eta?

Batasuna, after all, can speak for that constituency of peaceful Basque nationalists, and there are other nationalists in the Basque parliament and government in Vitoria.

Mr Barrena says Eta is not going to dissolve itself yet, because this is a "process which has only just begun".

A woman walks past posters supporting Eta and Batasuna in Navarra province
A permanent ceasefire could bring prosperity and stability to Basques

In Vitoria's medieval Gothic old town, there are other nationalist voices which do presage an end to Eta.

"Eta is going to disappear," insists Begona Errazti, leader of the Basque Solidarity party.

A small, feisty blonde lady, she attracts shouts of support from passers-by in the square. She says Eta is not the problem, it is a symptom of Madrid's failure of nerve.

"We need the political recognition of our country. If we can get this, Eta will disappear totally."

Future prosperity

In the one hour that it takes to drive from Vitoria to the fashionable Basque seaside resort of San Sebastian, the landscape shows both faces of the Basque identity.

The rugged mountains from which Basque clans resisted the invader for more than 2,000 years; from Romans to Visigoths to the dictator, General Franco.

Just occasionally, a tiny hamlet glints in the late afternoon sun like a precious stone set in the green foothills.

And in the valleys, brand new industrial parks stretch out for miles alongside the motorway - the urban, industrialised face of the country.

Once you reach the graceful promenade of San Sebastian, with its crescent of pristine golden sand curving around the bay, you can begin to understand the pressures on Eta to disarm.

Nobody here wants the instability that threatens this prosperity. Basques hope, like Spain's prime minister, that this is the beginning of the end of their 38-year nightmare.

But they know each other well enough - and the politicians in Madrid - to sense that the end is not yet in sight.



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