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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 January 2007, 11:53 GMT
Basque country's broken peace
By Michael Buchanan
BBC News, Bilbao

A policeman surveys damaged after the bomb blast at Barajas airport
The bomb at Madrid's main airport ended a nine-month ceasefire

After last month's bomb blast in Madrid, the Spanish government broke off a peace process with the Basque separatist group, Eta, which had been in place since the previous March.

In the northern city of Bilbao, most people are shocked by the apparent end to the dialogue between Basque nationalists and the Madrid government.

Miren AzKarate is one of these female politicians that you meet in virtually every Western democracy these days.

Bright, articulate, well briefed, immaculately dressed and perfectly coiffured.

The necessary pre-requisites - I suppose - for being the chief spokesperson for the Basque government.

When I walked into the spartan office where Miren had agreed to meet me, she was pacing the floor, arms folded.

Fair enough, I thought. After all, I was 40 minutes late due to underestimating the drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian.

Addressing the issues

The Madrid train bombings
Old and young, male and female all thought the era of violence in Spanish society had ended with the Madrid train bombings of 2004

We sat down at a bare functional table and Miren began to reveal her utter exasperation at Eta's bomb blast in Madrid a few days earlier.

Yes, like every other politician in the Basque country she had been warning that the peace process was in crisis.

Yes, the Spanish government should have moved some of Eta's prisoners to local jails from elsewhere in Spain.

And yes, Eta's political wing, Batasuna, should have been legalised.

But exploding a bomb in a car park at Madrid airport - killing two people - was no way to address these issues.

'Disappointment and weariness'

"The attack was a road to nowhere," proclaimed Miren.

It was a sentiment that was expressed to me over and over.

It was lunchtime, so the bar was not too busy.

A map showing the Basque area
1959: Eta founded
1968: Eta kills San Sebastian secret police chief Meliton Manzanas, its first victim
1973: PM Luis Carrero Blanco assassinated
1978: Political wing Herri Batasuna formed
1980: 118 people killed in bloodiest year
Sept 1998: Indefinite ceasefire
Nov 1999: End of ceasefire, followed by more bomb attacks in January and February 2000
Dec 2001: EU declares Eta a terrorist organisation
March 2003: Batasuna banned by Supreme Court
May 2003: Two police killed in Eta's last deadly attack
Nov 2005: 56 alleged Eta activists on trial in the largest prosecution of its kind
March 2006: Eta declares permanent ceasefire

The producer of a phone-in programme on Basque radio said that people were calling in, in tears when they heard of the bombing.

On the streets of the beautiful crescent-shaped city of San Sebastian, where waves gently washed its white sandy beach, there were no tears to be seen - just a deep sense of disappointment and weariness.

Old and young, male and female, all thought the era of violence in Spanish society had ended with the Madrid train bombings of 2004.

Nobody could surely think, they kept telling me, that bombings would achieve anything.

For Eta to operate, they must of course ignore the views of the vast majority of people in the Basque country.

They need to focus on the much smaller - and diminishing - pool of people who will at the very least implicitly support their actions.

The easiest way to hear a justification for Eta's actions is to talk to their political leaders, but as they would not speak, I headed for a bar I was told was popular with hard-line Basque nationalists.

'Cannabis fog'

The place was not busy.

On one wall was a large poster showing the faces of scores of Eta members who had been killed over the years.

In a corner of an annex was a large picture of a current Eta militant who is being force-fed by the Spanish authorities after he went on hunger strike.

The paper napkins had a map of a nominal Basque state, an area straddling the Spanish-French border.

At a table sat a group of about six or seven people, smoking some of the strongest cannabis I have ever smelt.

The odour hit me as soon as I entered the bar, but no police officer would dare to come into such an anti-Spanish establishment and arrest the smokers.

The cannabis fog may have clouded the bar, but its patrons' thinking remained crystal clear: Eta's bombing had been wholly justified.

The Spanish government had given nothing to the militants over the past nine months.

They had continued to persecute the Basque people and arrest Eta members.

Eta had done their bit and they had been let down.

New bodyguards

It is very much a minority view, but then so is the opinion of the main opposition party in Spain, who argue that Eta continued to extort and blackmail, and re-arm and retrain during its nine month ceasefire, and that the only long-term solution to the problem is to use the Spanish security services to eradicate the militants.

But even they admit that it does not take many people to shoot someone or plant a bomb.

Which brings me back to Miren AzKarate.

Many of those who had got rid of their security people during the Eta ceasefire have been busy re-hiring them

Despite her frustration and anger over Eta's actions, she like the majority of Basques, believes that the only viable way forward - in time of course - is dialogue.

"Talks will eventually have to take place between Eta and the Spanish government," she confidently stated.

"Otherwise", continues Miren, "we are saying that everything is over, everything is broken, accepting that Eta is deciding for us. We cannot accept that."

For Miren this is not just a political problem.

Eta has assassinated scores of politicians over the decades, and their return to arms has increased nervousness among Basque politicians of all levels.

Many of those who had got rid of their security people during the Eta ceasefire have been busy re-hiring them.

As I had entered Miren's office I had noticed her bodyguard, and as I was leaving I asked her, as the Basque government spokesperson, if she was personally afraid of what might happen to her.

"Of course I am," she said.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 13 January, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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