ETA - End to Terrorist Activity?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am

A five-minute primer on an issue making headlines

The announcement of a permanent ceasefire last week brought an end to almost 40 years of violence by the ETA terror organisation. So what was ETA fighting for?

ETA stands for Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or 'Basque Fatherland and Liberty'.

The organisation began life in 1959 as a student resistance movement, established by separatists who wanted an independent and socialist nation in the mountainous Basque country, which straddles the northern Spain and southwestern France.

Have there been many casualties?

The death count stands at 817 since ETA began its violent campaign in 1968, the year in which it claimed its first major political victim: Meliton Manzanas, a hated secret police chief, was assassinated in the Basque city of San Sebastian. ETA tried to blow up Jose Maria Aznar before he became prime minister in 1994. A plot to kill King Juan Carlos was also uncovered.

Wasn't ETA blamed for the Madrid train bombing in 2004?

Initially yes, by Mr Aznar's government, before the identity of the real attackers - al-Qaeda- associated groups - was confirmed.

But the bombs that killed 191 people nevertheless spelled the end for ETA, as public sympathy for their violent struggle slumped - even among the Basques.

More than 2 million people took to the streets in Spain in remarkable peace protests, forcing ETA for the first time to deny responsibility for terrorism.

Passion for the Basques' plight has waned since General Francisco Franco's death in 1975. Today the region has its own parliament and police force and levies its own taxes.

Some observers believe the fatal blow came in October 2004, when 21 senior ETA figures, including its chief, Mikel Albizu Iriate, were arrested. More than 600 ETA members are now behind bars. Its political wing, Batasuna, was banned by Mr Aznar, but the present government offered an olive branch of peace talks in return for disarmament.

Last week's declaration is the biggest sign yet of ETA's willingness to pursue a non-violent path. How can we be sure their intentions are sincere?

There have been several previous ceasefires, but this is the first described by ETA as permanent. Most observers agree ETA is now dead as a violent force, but many Spaniards remain deeply suspicious of the group.

They argue that many hurdles - over disarmament, the release of prisoners and the fact neither the no Spanish or French governments would agree to independence - have still to be cleared.