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ETA: One of Europe's most feared separatist groups
LONDON (CNN) -- For more than 40 years the Basque separatist group ETA has been fighting for an independent Basque state in the mountainous north-eastern corner of Spain.
During that period, Basque separtists have killed more than 800 people, kidnapped a further 70 and wounded thousands, making ETA one of the most feared organisations of its kind anywhere in Europe.
ETA stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque for "Basque Fatherland and Freedom." The organisation was founded in 1959 and claimed its first victim -- a secret police chief from San Sebastian -- in 1968.
Since then it has waged a relentless campaign of violence against the Spanish state, targeting politicians, policemen, judges and soldiers, as well as planting car bombs that have caused numerous civilian casualties. In 1980 alone it claimed 118 lives, and in 1995 ETA nearly succeeded in assassinating Jose Maria Aznar, then leader of the opposition, now Spain's prime minister.
On September 16, 1998, the organisation declared a "unilateral and indefinite" cease-fire, raising hopes that its campaign was at an end. The cease-fire was broken in November 1999, however, and this year has seen an alarming escalation in violence.
The Basque country, or Euskal Herria as it is known in Basque, straddles the western end of the Pyrenees, covering 20,664 square kilometres in northeastern Spain and southwestern France. It comprises seven provinces, or "herrialdes" -- Alava, Guipuzcoa, Navarra and Vizcaya in Spain, and Basse Navarre, Labourd and Soule in France -- and includes a population approaching three million.
The area has always possessed a fiercely independent instinct. The Basque people are the oldest indigenous ethnic group in Europe, and have lived uninterrupted in the same region since the beginning of recorded history.
Their language, Euskara, which is spoken by about 40 percent of the region's inhabitants, bears no relation to any other Indo-European tongue and dates back to at least 6000 BC, making it the oldest native language on the continent.
For many centuries the Basques of Spain enjoyed a strong degree of autonomy. Under General Franco's dictatorship (1939-75), however, the region was brought under strict central control -- the Basques had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil war -- and its separatist instincts were ruthlessly suppressed.
It was this suppression that led to the formation of ETA in 1959 and demands for an independent Basque state.
Although ostensibly fighting for the autonomy of the whole Basque region, including the three French herrialdes, ETA has focused its activities primarily on the Spanish side of the border (for many years France provided a safe haven for ETA members, a situation that only began to change in the mid-1980s).
The organisation finances its campaign through kidnapping, bank robbery and a so-called "revolutionary tax" on Basque businesses.
According to the counter-terrorism office of the U.S. State Department ETA members have received training in Libya, Lebanon and Nicaragua, while the group also enjoys close links with the Irish Republican Army (the Good Friday peace accord was instrumental in persuading ETA to call its cease-fire in 1998).
Active support for ETA is limited, and although no accurate figures are available, its membership is not thought to number more than a few hundred. Its political wing, Herri Batasuna (founded in 1978), rarely scores higher than 20 percent in local elections, considerably less than the more moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).
Repeated public demonstrations against the organisation throughout the Basque region have shown that while they might support the idea of independence, the vast majority of the area's population opposes achieving it through bloodshed.
The response of the Spanish Government to ETA's activities has been two-pronged.
On one hand Spain has sought to accommodate the region's strong sense of local identity. Since the early 1980s three of the country's four Basque provinces -- Alava, Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya -- have been recognised as an autonomous region known as Pais Vasco, with its own parliament and police force, with Euskara as the official language.
At the same time Madrid has dealt ruthlessly with anyone suspected of being an ETA member.
During the 1980s an organisation called the Anti-Terrorist Liberation Group (GAL), which killed 27 suspected ETA members, was revealed to have been acting with the tacit consent of certain government ministers.
In 1997, 23 leaders of Herri Batasuna were arrested and jailed for collaborating with ETA.
Despite such government crackdowns, however, and widespread public condemnation of its activities, ETA has continued its campaign of violence.
Inaki Azcuna, the mayor of Bilbao, said on Tuesday: "We have too many attacks and not enough dialogue."
It is a situation which, at present, shows no sign of changing.
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