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Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 11:38 GMT
Eyewitness: ETA's shadowy leaders
Gunman ETA gunmen have been responsible for hundreds of deaths

Southern Europe Correspondent Orla Guerin describes a meeting with senior leaders of the Basque separatist movement ETA in October 1998, just after they had declared the first indefinite ceasefire in their 30-year campaign:

More on ETA
ETA's bloody record
Leaders in the shadows
Timeline: Key events
The Irish connection
Who are the Basques?
I did not hear it at the time. In restrospect I was glad of that. If I had heard the words as they were spoken, I think I would have been sick, there and then, by the side of the road. It had been a long day.

All three of us, producer Eva Ewart, cameramen Sam Gracey and myself, were numb. We had been given unprecedented access to the most senior leaders of ETA, the men who have masterminded what is now Europe's longest war. Now the interview was over and we had come to a parting of the ways.

I was out of the car in an instant, but Sam was stuck. Maybe it was tiredness, maybe it was tension, one way or the other he could not open the door.

He called for help. I did not hear him but the driver did. He pulled open the back door with a smile. "This is the car we use for kidnapping," he said and laughed. Weeks afterwards I cannot get those words out of my mind.

Photos Photographs of ETA prisoners at a demonstration in Bilbao
But to tell the story of the Basque conflict - which has lasted 30 years and claimed almost 800 lives - we had to speak to those who were making war. It is they, in the end, who will have to make peace.

ETA was not easy to get to; it took months of dedicated pursuit, much of it by Eva, our producer. Ironically, my Irishness helped to open some doors. I did not know whether to be grateful or offended at what was being assumed.

Our rendevous with the ETA leadership took place outside Spain, in another European country. As arranged, we were picked up by escorts who were taking no chances. "Keep looking at the ground," they said. "Look at your feet, do not look at anything else." It was an order but it was issued politely. We did not need to be told twice.

Blindfolded with plasters

As we were hustled in and out of a series of cars, our escorts apologised repeatedly for any discomfort. We were given sticking plasters to cover our eyes and politely offered a choice of sunglasses to conceal the plasters. It was a brief taste of the hostage experience, but with gold card treatment.

As I sat in the back of the car, blind to the world outside, I thought of Miguel Angel Blanco. He had been lured into a car by an ETA kidnap squad in July 1998.Two days later they dumped him by the side of a lonely road after shooting him twice in the head. He was just 29. Throughout our journey I could not escape thoughts about him, and the terror he must have felt as he was driven away.

When we finally reached our destination I expected hostility from the hard men at the top of ETA. Instead they offered tea and coffee, asked if we were warm enough and if they could help with our equipment. Having a gun waved in my face would have been less disturbing.

But when the interview began, the real ETA emerged - cold, and without mercy. The two hooded figures who faced me, I shall call them Gorka and Ion, did not refuse any questions. They had not been told in advance what would be asked.

No regrets

Having killed almost 800 people over the past 30 years, I did not expect ETA to have a sudden change of heart about violence, but I did think there might be some small expression of regret, sincere or otherwise. There was none.

protest 1998 Protesters demonstrate after the killing of Miguel Angel Blanco
Repeated questions about ETA's many victims were answered by an attack on the government in Madrid. "We will neither apologise nor ask for medals," Gorka said. "It's the Spanish state who should be asking for forgiveness, for denying our people the right to exist."

When I asked about Miguel Angel Blanco, there was a curt and clinical reply. To Gorka, this young man, whose killing brought six million Spaniards out onto the streets in protests, was just another number. He was a councillor for Spain's Popular Party. In Gorka's words that made him a target, like any other councillor from the ruling party. ETA has killed seven of them.

Ion said little during the interview but from time to time there were signs that he did not like the questions. He flexed his fingers inside the black leather gloves that hid his hands. Was it deliberate, I wondered, or just the subconscious gesture of a man who passes death sentences and carries them out.

ETA could go back to killing as usual, if peace talks do not deliver what it wants. But Gorka insisted that this generation, at least, would not fight again. Whether or not I believed him, I have been unable to forget this, or anything else he said.

The interview has stuck with me, like a splinter beneath the flesh
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See also:
09 Jan 99 |  Europe
ETA: Key events
17 Sep 98 |  Europe
ETA's violent past

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