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The BBC's Justin Webb
"The wider storm that has engulfed all of this region in the last week or so is not so easily dismissed."
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Saturday, 12 August, 2000, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
On the trail of ETA
Young Basque separatists hold their fists in the air
Basque separatists demonstrated across northern Spain
By Justin Webb in Bilbao

We were standing in the sun, looking rather foolish. A small sweaty group of press photographers and cameramen with enough equipment to cover a small war, gathered incongruously on the corner of a pedestrian precinct in the old Spanish city of Bilbao surrounded by shoe shops and cafes and tourists.

There was nothing happening. Every few minutes my mobile phone rang with BBC people in London demanding to know the latest. But I had nothing to say.


It became suddenly obvious that we were not welcome to witness this piece of theatre.

This was meant to be a demonstration in favour of Basque separatist group ETA - according to the press office of their political wing a show of support for four ETA members killed on 7 August by their own bomb. Curious to see how many people would turn up for such an event and what sort of people they would be, my cameraman and I had tagged along.

And now it seemed we were to have our answer - no-one would show. In a week when the group killed and maimed a number of people both here and in Madrid, the 'own goal' it had suffered would not it seems create much sympathy.

Attack

But just as we were toying with the idea of a quick lunch and even a look in the shoe shops, there was a distant shout. Then it became a chant. Then down one of the lanes, running at full tilt, was a group of about 20 young men. I thought they were going to dash straight past us but as they approached it became suddenly obvious that we were not welcome to witness this piece of theatre.

ETA supporters carry a Basque flag with a black ribbon
Four ETA members were killed by their own bomb
Several shouted abuse at us - in Basque so the subtleties were somewhat lost on me - but a couple actually launched themselves at the cameraman and hit him on the head before running off.

A police car arrived and gave half-hearted chase and it was over.

My cameraman had a bruised neck, the people in the pavement cafes had a new topic of conversation, and the customers in the shoe shop completed their purchases - oblivious to the sudden summer storm that had erupted and dissolved on the pavement outside.


The talk on both sides is of a fight to the death

Our little mini maelstrom in Bilbao will be quickly forgotten, even by my cameraman, but the wider storm that has engulfed all of this region in the last week or so is not so easily dismissed.

It appears that ETA has gone back to what it regards as full-scale war. After a 14-month ceasefire which ended in December, and merely sporadic attacks up to this summer, it has suddenly sprung in to life

'You tell lies'

For the moment the official response in Madrid is to match real fire with its rhetorical equivalent. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is himself the survivor of an ETA car bomb and his administration speaks of ETA with genuine loathing - "a barbarous organisation that has gone insane" the deputy prime minister said this week.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar
Jose Maria Aznar: Survived ETA attack
In my brief stay in Bilbao I had no contact with ETA except through its political apologists. I was struck, more than anything, by their otherworldliness. After our previous experience it was with some trepidation that I approached a group of ETA supporters as they sat in the centre of town alongside floral tributes to their dead - the four killed by their own bomb.

They were not physically hostile, but one told me: "We don't like the news. You tell lies."

"What should I say then?" I asked.

"Nothing," he said. "Don't tell anyone anything.

"Honest people know the truth."

Police handout of picture of Patxi Rementeria
Killed: ETA commander Patxi Rementeria
In a world dominated by slick soundbites his refusal to have any message at all for the viewers and listeners of the BBC was oddly refreshing. But it is not going to do anything for ETA's image abroad.

A locally based observer of the political scene told me later that the further up the hierarchy of ETA you went the more unconnected with ordinary life they were. At the top, he said, they really do not inhabit the same planet. He said a tiny number of people - perhaps as few as 30 - commit the murders. They are untouchable - impervious to reason.

But in the wider political community of ETA supporters he said there were plenty who might be persuaded to stop and talk. It has happened before and it could happen again.

For the time being though, the talk on both sides is of a fight to the death. There is a weary feeling here that before they get better, things are about to get a lot worse.

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See also:

11 Aug 00 | Europe
ETA admits murders
10 Aug 00 | Europe
In pictures: Tensions in Spain
10 Aug 00 | Media reports
Spanish papers defy ETA
09 Aug 00 | Europe
Spanish soldier shot dead
08 Aug 00 | Europe
Second Basque bomb blast
27 Jan 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Fear and anger as ETA strikes
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