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Basque village caught in Eta purge

4 September 09 08:46 GMT

By Linda Pressly
The Report

On a wet evening locals gather for a rally in the centre of Ursubil.

There is rousing Basque music, but the mood is sombre. From large wooden placards the faces of seven men and two women stare out.

These are presumed members of the Basque separatist group Eta, or other banned political organisations, who are in prison in Spain.

This rally was held in defiance of the new Basque Socialist government's crackdown on radical Basque nationalism.

The government is pushing to remove Eta-related insignia and graffiti from towns and villages, and has prohibited the display of photos of prisoners at some rallies.

'Hero worship'

"We are trying to end this political culture, to remove the pictures of terrorists," said Idoia Mendia, spokesperson of the regional Socialist government.

"We have a problem with some young people, and we have to teach them that to be a member of Eta is not to be a hero."

The move has coincided with a wave of Eta attacks marking the organisation's 50th anniversary.

In Majorca, two police officers were killed in a car bomb in July, and another officer was murdered in Bilbao in June.

Last December, 71-year-old Ignacio Uria Mendizabal was gunned down some 20km (12.4 miles) from Ursubil.

Ignacio ran his family's construction business, and Eta said it had killed him because because of his company's involvement in the building of a controversial new high-speed rail link.

Just as the residents of Ursubil rally regularly to remember those in prison, the relatives and friends of Ignacio meet monthly at the place he was murdered.

"We don't want to forget Ignacio," said his cousin, Luis Mendizabal.

"After the killing, Ignacio's children wrote an open letter to Eta. In it they asked: 'Who are you to decide who should work and who shouldn't? And who are you to kill another Basque in the name of the Basque Country?'"

Nationalist bastion

This is the first time in the post-Franco era in Spain that the Socialists have been in power in the Basque Country.

The party formed the government earlier this year as a result of a coalition with the centre-right Popular Party, its traditional enemy in other parts of Spain.

Ursubil, near San Sebastian, has a population of some 5,500 people. It is known as a bastion of radical Basque nationalism.

Two suspected Eta militants were picked up here by Spanish police in June. Their photos were on display at the rally too, held aloft proudly by their family members.

A short walk down the hill from the main square, a large political mural covers a wall.

It was painted in the 1980s, the bloodiest era in Eta's history, and depicts marchers on a demonstration.

But the faces have been daubed over clumsily with black paint, and the words Herri Batasuna, the name of a political party allegedly associated with Eta, have also been obscured.

Two young people in the village claimed it was the Basque police who arrived a month ago and supervised the defacing of the mural.

Aged 17 and 25, "Annie" and "Mickel" did not want to be identified because they feared they might be harassed by the police as a result.

Police tensions

"I was here when the police came one morning and the mural was painted over. It doesn't make any sense at all because these faces were just anonymous faces," said Annie.

"They were not the faces of real Basque political prisoners or anything like that."

The police action has angered local people. Photocopies of what the mural looked like before it was despoiled are displayed on walls in Ursubil.

But Idoia Mendia is not worried by a backlash against the new government's get-tough policy.

"I don't think more people will support terrorism as a result of these kinds of actions by the authorities," she said.

"People who supported Eta in the past are fed up. They feel the only future is politics."

But radical nationalist political parties have been banned, and the national and regional governments say there is no chance of them rejoining the political mainstream until Eta lays down its arms.

Freedom

Youth organisations allegedly connected to Eta are also illegal. Annie and Mickel both believe young people are under heavy scrutiny.

"You can feel how police officers watch your movements and listen to your phone conversations," said Annie.

And according to Mickel, this kind of vigilance is pushing some young people towards Eta.

"When I was studying in university there were 30 in my class, now five of them are in prison," he says.

"For a lot of young people there is a lot of pressure from the police and authorities. And for some of them it's the only route left."

And what about the government's assertion that some young people idolise Eta as heroes?

"I don't think so," said Mickel. "They don't feel like heroes, perhaps you have empathy for the family of prisoners, but that's just solidarity."

Annie does not believe Eta militants are heroes either.

"But at least they're the ones who fight for our rights," she added. "They're not heroes but soldiers for Basque freedom."

For people like Luis Mendizabal, Eta militants will never be soldiers for Basque freedom.

"Ignacio was Basque," he says. "He thought like a Basque and he wanted the best for the Basque country. ETA isn't more Basque than Ignacio was - much less in fact."

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