BILBAO, Spain — The Basque militant group ETA called an end to a 43-year violent campaign for independence Thursday and said it now wants talks with Spain and France — a groundbreaking move that could pave the way for ending Europe’s last armed militancy.
ETA had already declared a cease-fire last year — one of nearly a dozen over the years — but up to now had not renounced armed struggle as a tool for achieving an independent Basque state, a key demand by the Spanish government. The group made the latest announcement to Basque daily Gara, which it regularly uses as a mouthpiece.
The Basque country is a small but wealthy and verdent region of northern Spain, with its own distinct culture and an ancient language that linguists cannot trace and sounds nothing like Spanish. Under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who was obsessed with the idea of Spain as a unitary state and suppressed Basque culture, ETA emerged as a national liberation movement in the late 1960s.
It was most violent in the 1980s, staging hundreds of shootings of police and politicians and even occasional indiscriminate bombings of civilians.
But in more recent times it has been decimated by arrests and weakening support from Basques with little stomach for terrorism after Sept. 11 and the Madrid train bombings of 2004 by Islamic militants. It has not killed anyone in Spain in two years, and was reportedly down to as few as 50 fighters, many of them young and inexperienced.
In many ways Thursday’s announcement was the culmination of a drum roll that has sounded for years.
“ETA has decided on the definitive end of its armed struggle,” the group said in the statement. “ETA calls upon the Spanish and French governments to open a process of a direct dialogue.”
ETA, which has killed 829 people in bombings and shootings since the late 1960s, is classified as a terrorist organization by Spain, the European Union and the U.S. Its first killing was in 1968.
The statement made no mention of what the group intended to do with its weapons.
Some kind of announcement from ETA has been expected as part of what seemed to be a carefully choreographed process. It began a year ago when its political supporters renounced violence, ETA called a cease-fire and international figures like former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan this week attended a conference that called on ETA to lay down its weapons.
Basque newspaper Berria showed video and still photos of three hooded ETA members wearing berets and masks with their fists in the air after reading the statement. They also shouted in favor of Basque independence, suggesting they have not completely given up the fight.
The statement made no mention of dissolving outright and unconditionally as the government has demanded, and asserted what it says is the right of the Basque people to decide their own future — the status quo as part of Spain or independence.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hailed the news as a victory for Spanish democracy. In a brief appearance before reporters, however, he made no mention of prospects for dialogue with ETA. Talks in 2006 went nowhere and ETA ended a cease-fire after just a few months.
Zapatero’s Socialist party is expected to lose general elections scheduled for Nov. 20. So it is likely up to the conservative Popular Party to decide how to proceed now.
Zapatero credited his and previous governments’ fight against ETA, police and soldiers who have died in it, and thanked France for its collaboration. He remembered all the people killed in ETA shootings and bombings, and their families.
“They will be with us always. They will be with future generations of Spaniards,” he said.
Zapatero’s former Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the man most people credit with coordinating the legal and police battle to bring ETA to its knees, said, “If only this day had come before.”
Rubalcaba stepped down as minister recently in order to run as candidate for the Socialist party in next month’s general elections. Zapatero is not running for re-election.
Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, who is widely expected to become the next prime minister, said his party welcomed the news but said Spain would only be fully at ease when ETA disbands.
“We think this is a very important step but Spaniards’ peace of mind will only be complete with the irreversible disbanding of ETA and its complete dissolution,” he added.
The ETA statement said talks with Spain and France — the independent homeland the group has fought to create includes part of southwest France — should address “the resolution of the consequences of the conflict.” This language usually refers to the around 1,000 ETA prisoners held in Spanish and French jails and ETA weapons.
The announcement came just three days after several international figures, including Annan and Ireland’s Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, attended a conference on ETA in the Basque city of San Sebastian and called on the group to end the violence.
Adams welcomed ETA’s statement Thursday.
“We called upon ETA to make a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action and to request talks with the governments of Spain and France to address exclusively the consequences of the conflict,” Adams said.
“I believe that their statement today meets that requirement and I would urge the governments of Spain and France to welcome it and agree to talks exclusively to deal with the consequences of the conflict,” he said.