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ETA: Feared separatist group

ETA members in a 1996 ETA amateur video
ETA members in a 1996 ETA amateur video  

By CNN's Paul Sussman

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The Basque separatist group ETA has been fighting for an independent Basque state in northern Spain since 1968.

During that period, ETA has been blamed for killing more than 800 people, kidnapping 70 others and wounding thousands, making it one of the most feared organisations of its kind in Europe.

ETA, founded in 1959, stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque for "Basque Homeland and Freedom." It killed what some say was its first victim in 1968.

Since then it has waged a relentless campaign of violence against the Spanish state, targeting politicians, policemen, judges and soldiers.

Basque conflict: Violence in Spain 

ETA's deadliest weapons are car bombs, which have caused numerous civilian casualties. In 1980 alone ETA was blamed for 118 deaths, and in 1995 it 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. ETA called off the cease-fire in November 1999, however, and 2000 saw a sharp escalation in violence.

Fiercely independent

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 northern Spain and southern France.

Spain officially recognizes three Basque provinces, Alava, Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya. A fourth neighboring province, Navarra, is of Basque heritage. Separatists consider these four provinces plus three in France -- Basse Navarre, Labourd and Soule -- as the Basque country, with a population approaching 3 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, Euskera, which is spoken regularly by about 40 percent of Basque inhabitants, bears no relation to any other Indo-European tongue and dates back to before the Romans arrived in Spain.

For many centuries the Basques of Spain enjoyed a strong degree of autonomy. In the Spanish Civil War, two Basque provinces -- Guipuzcoa and Viscaya -- fought against Gen. Francisco Franco, while the provinces of Alava and Navarra fought for Franco. Under Franco's dictatorship (1939-75), most of the Basque region had its remaining autonomy recinded. Its culture, people and language were suppressed.

ETA and its depands for an independent Basque state arose in 1959 in the midst of this suppression.

ETA today

ETA has focused its activities on the Spanish side of the border. For many years France provided a safe haven for ETA members, a situation that 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 -- a payment that is widely regarded as plain extortion. No one knows how many businesses make these payments.

The Basque region's hilly landscape helped keep its people isolated from outside influences
The Basque region's hilly landscape helped keep its people isolated from outside influences  

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 influenced 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.

It is believed to operate in small commando cells of about five people each. The party that many believe to be 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).

While many Basques support independence -- up to 40 percent, according to PNV leader Xabier Arzalluz -- the vast majority of Basques oppose the use of violence.

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, the Basque provinces of Alava, Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya have been recognised as an autonomous region known as Pais Vasco, with its own parliament and police force, and with Euskera as the official language.

At the same time Madrid has cracked down hard on anyone suspected of being an ETA member.

From 1983-87, a shadowy organization called the Anti-Terrorist Liberation Group (or GAL, from its Spanish name), was blamed for killing 27 suspected ETA members. This later proved to be a major scandal for Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, who was in power from 1982-96. One of his interior ministers served time in jail for his role in a kidnapping carried out by GAL.

In 1997, 23 leaders of Herri Batasuna were arrested and jailed for collaborating with ETA.

Despite the crackdowns and widespread public condemnation of its activities, ETA has continued its campaign of violence. Inaki Azcuna, the mayor of Bilbao, said: "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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