20 January 2005 Edition

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Spain rejects ETA talks offer

Spanish PM  Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

The Socialist Government in Spain has, at least for now, rejected a serious offer of talks from the Basque pro-independence nationalist left.

Last weekend had offered renewed hope for a negotiated solution to the conflict between Basque nationalists and the Spanish State. First, there was an open letter by pro-independence political party Batasuna offering to enter negotiations with the Spanish government, headed by Socialist Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Then, a statement by the armed guerrilla group ETA, sent to the Basque media on Saturday, expressed the organisation's support for the peace proposal launched by Batasuna in November, extending the hand of dialogue to the Spanish Government to achieve a lasting and just peace for the Basque Country.

Would the Spanish Socialist government take advantage of this new opportunity for peace, or would they — as the right-wing Popular Party government did in 1998 when they rejected the Lizarra initiative despise ETA's ceasefire — allow the conflict to continue? Sadly, the initial reaction was negative, insisting on ETA disbanding as a precondition to talks.

ETA expressed its support for the Batasuna initiative and pledged the organisation's readiness to fully participate in a peace process. ETA said that solution to the conflict between Spain and the Basque Country could only be solved through negotiation, dialogue and the achievement of an overall agreement to allow the Basque people to choose what kind of country they want to live in.

Arnaldo Otegi and Pernando Barrena, members of the national executive of Bastasuna, presented the latest peace offer from the Basque pro-independence left to the Spanish government on Friday 14 January, this time in the shape of a open letter to the Spanish Prime Minister. "When Mr Zapatero decides to definitively resolve the political and armed conflict between the Basque Country and the Spanish State, Batasuna and all the Basque nationalist left would be by his side to make sure that this scenario blooms and opens to a lasting, stable and just peace for our country," it stated.

Otegi considered that Zapatero senses that "there is a real possibility to solve this conflict definitely" and he called on the Prime Minister to move towards that solution.

Batasuna criticised Zapatero's approach to the situation in the Basque Country to date and pointed out that "this is the time for statesmen and stateswomen; this is the time to choose whether to stay with the most reactionary sectors or to take the democratic road, strengthening and reaffirming the basis for conflict resolution".

Batasuna asked Zapatero to allow "a simple democratic exercise: to honestly respect the decisions of the Basque people".

Otegi clarified that what Batasuna is proposing is not a Basque pan-nationalist front to impose a unilateral solution to the conflict. "Batasuna proposes an agreement between nationalists and non-nationalists," explained Otegi, "an agreement that should be supported by and respectful of all the Basque people's sensibilities."

Batasuna believes that for the Agreement to be inclusive and workable, it is necessary that the Spanish Government to negotiate with ETA in order to take the gun out of the political landscape, to agree the release of the Basque political prisoners and to recognise the pain of all the victims.

The initial reaction of the Spanish Government, through the deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez, coincided in approach and content to that of the main opposition party, the right-wing PP, however, placing the precondition of ETA's disbandment on any negotiation. Prime Minister Zapatero, who was visiting the Basque Country at the time, said that in order to initiate any kind of dialogue with Batasuna, it would be first necessary to take bombs and guns out of the equation.

Mariano Rajoy, president of the PP, warned Zapatero that he should not consider initiating negotiations "with a man who supports a terrorist organisation" — a reference to Otegi. Rajoy demanded that Batasuna should condemn ETA's actions and that the Basque armed organisation should disband before even contemplating the possibility of negotiations.

So, sadly, in their responses, the new Spanish Socialist Government seems to be following in the wake of the right-wing Popular Party.

Defence Minister, José Bono, described the statement of ETA and its offer of negotiation and dialogue as "a trap" - exactly the same words that former PM Aznar used to portray ETA's ceasefire in 1998 — exactly the same excuses not to find a solution to 'the Basque question'.

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