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Thursday, 27 January, 2000, 19:48 GMT
Fear and anger as ETA strikes

Many hope public opposition will stop ETA violence
Many hope public opposition will stop ETA violence

By Daniel Schweimler in Madrid

I live just a short distance away from where two car bombs exploded in Madrid on 21 January, killing a Spanish army officer and marking Basque separatist group ETA's return to violence.

The bombs had come as no surprise, since ETA had announced an end to its ceasefire seven weeks earlier. But it shocked a country that has become used to the idea of living without the treat of violence.

The two bombs were a dramatic return to violence The two bombs were a dramatic return to violence
Like most in my neighbourhood I was woken that morning by the sound of sirens heading in the direction of the attack.

A little while later we realised what all the commotion was about. "An ETA bomb," mumbled those passing by my local newspaper kiosk. "Yes terrible, isn't it," muttered others before the conversation, as it nearly always does in Spain, returned to the weekend's football matches.

There is little new that Spaniards can say about a conflict which has been raging on and off for more than 30 years.

More than a million people took to the streets of Madrid two days after the bomb attack and again they hardly spoke.

For several hours people streamed into the centre of the city from every direction. They marched in silence, hoping their mere presence would be enough to convince ETA to reinstate its ceasefire.

Many carried banners that simply read, "ETA No".

Even the leaders of Spain's main political parties, marching side by side at the head of the rally, chose not to speak. And this is with general elections less than two months away.

Public message

An army officer was killed in the blast An army officer was killed in the blast
The last political killing in Spain was in Madrid in February 1997.

Spaniards had grown used to living with peace and are angered to see what looks like a return to the days of regular car bombs and shootings.

The demonstration in Madrid, and other smaller rallies around Spain, were designed to be a repeat of the enormous show of public emotion which followed ETA's kidnapping and killing of a young Basque councillor in 1997.

Millions took to the streets then with the simple message that they had had enough of ETA's violence. Violence that had killed almost 800 people.

The politicians were forced to act, ETA had to respond and in September 1998 the separatist group declared a ceasefire.

But little or no progress was made in trying to establish a peace process in the 14 months that followed.

And last month ETA ran out of patience, announcing an end to its ceasefire. The best hope Spain had possibly ever had of finding a peaceful solution to the Basque conflict had gone.

There appeared few other options but to take to the streets. ETA had listened before. Now all are waiting nervously to see if they will listen again. But few hold out much hope.

The conservative government has said it will not talk to ETA until it lays down its weapons. The opposition Socialist party and many in the rest of Spain back the government.

Simmering violence

But the situation in the northern Basque region is far more complicated.

Even while ETA's ceasefire was in place, the violence never went away. No-one was killed but groups of young ETA supporters continued to attack property and burn cars belonging to local councillors who oppose full independence for the Basque region.

ETA's ceasefire officially ended in December ETA's ceasefire officially ended in December
That violence has already intensified and is only likely to get worse.

A Basque friend in the city of Bilbao told me the day after the attack of a great blanket of depression that had fallen over the region.

He said many there felt the Spanish Government hadn't given the moderate Basque parties a chance - had demonised all nationalist parties, whether they sought a peaceful way forward or not.

The tranquil green valleys and lush meadows in the region belie a volatile political situation in which the two million or so inhabitants represent every shade of political opinion.

There are those who speak the ancient Basque language, Euskera, and those who don't. Those who want full independence and many who want to remain part of Spain. There appears to be little room for compromise.

The political deals done before and during the ETA ceasefire are fast unravelling as insults and accusations are hurled from side to side.

Some blame the Spanish Government for not having grasped the chance to establish a permanent peace. Others blame the moderate Basque parties for negotiating with ETA's political wing, Herri Batasuna.

The fact that the peaceful road was tried and has failed has only deepened the sense of anger and desperation around Spain, but especially in the Basque region.

Life goes on but I, like most Spaniards, can't help asking every time I hear a police or ambulance siren go past whether another ETA bomb has just exploded or another person been shot.

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See also:
21 Jan 00 |  Europe
Car bombs hit Madrid
28 Nov 99 |  Europe
ETA ending ceasefire
21 Jan 00 |  Talking Point
Spain: Return to violence
02 Dec 99 |  Europe
ETA: Key events
02 Dec 99 |  Europe
Q & A: Northern Ireland and the Basque conflict

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