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Aznar ducks ETA leak row questions

By CNN's Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

Aznar is not seeking a third term in the March general elections.
Aznar is not seeking a third term in the March general elections.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain's prime minister has fended off questions into the leaking of an intelligence report on a meeting between an opposition politician and the Basque separatist group ETA.

Jose Maria Aznar on Thursday denied any possible wrongdoing by his government and said the only blame was with Josep-Lluis Carod-Rovira, who attended the meeting this month in France with top operatives of the outlawed, armed ETA.

The controversy precedes national elections on March 14, and opposition parties have asked why Spanish intelligence officers, who apparently knew about the meeting and reported it to the government, did not close in to arrest the ETA leaders.

After the conservative daily ABC published a report this week about the meeting, Carod admitted he had attended. He has since been forced out of his job as the second-ranking official in the powerful Catalan regional government based in Barcelona.

Carod said the January 4 meeting, with two ETA leaders who are on the police most-wanted list, was an effort to find a peaceful solution to end three decades of ETA violence blamed for more than 800 deaths.

In a nationally televised news conference in Madrid, Aznar said Carod had secretly made a deal with ETA to end attacks in Catalonia.

"That is a shame by itself, and it also is a shame for those who tolerate it," Aznar said, in a swipe at the leading opposition Socialist Party, which is a coalition partner with Carod's Republican Left party in the Catalan government.

Carod's party favors Catalan independence through peaceful means.

ETA has been fighting since 1968 for an independent homeland in Spain's northern Basque region, which is near, but does not include, Catalonia in northeast Spain.

ETA is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, of which Spain is a member.

Aznar is not seeking a third term in the March general elections, but his handpicked successor and longtime aide, Mariano Rajoy, leads the conservative Popular Party into the campaign against the Socialist leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Rajoy currently leads in all major opinion polls.

In Catalonia, the Socialists pressed Carod to leave his second-ranking job in the regional government, but the regional Socialists maintained their coalition with Carod's Republican Left party and that has brought a hail of criticism from Aznar and his aides.

Aznar said it is an indication the Socialists are willing to make deals with anyone, even if they coddle ETA. The Socialists and other parties have questioned whether Aznar's government leaked the news of the meeting in order to create further problems for the Socialists ahead of the elections.

Aznar said it added "insult to injury" to suggest that law enforcement or intelligence agents could have captured the ETA leaders during the January meeting in France.

He said his government's firm stance against ETA -- which refuses any negotiations until ETA agrees to lay down its arms -- would not change.

Police last year arrested 172 ETA suspects in Spain and in France, ETA's traditional rearguard base. ETA was blamed for killing only three people in 2003, its lowest death toll in 30 years except for the period of an ETA cease-fire from late 1998 and in 1999.

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