The Basque separatist group ETA issued a statement on Saturday which said they would “keep taking up arms" until the region achieves independence. According to the Basque newspaper Gara, the statement was read out by three armed and masked militants who appeared onstage at a pro-independence rally in the village of Aritxulegi near San Sebastian. The statement concluded with the warning “the fight is not a thing of the past. It is the present and the future." The call came six months to the day after ETA declared a permanent ceasefire.
ETA is classed as a terrorist organisation by both the EU and the US. It stands for “Euskadi Ta Askatasuna” which is Basque for “Basque Homeland and Freedom”. ETA’s symbol is the snake wrapped around axe and connotes both secrecy and strength. This is evident in their motto "Bietan jarrai" which means "keep up on both". The Basques have a long and proud history and a unique language that is entirely unrelated to any other European tongue. But sited in a strategic zone between France and Spain, it was inevitably overrun by many invaders. Basque nationalism found a voice in the 19th century in the growing power of its largest city Bilbo (better known by its Spanish name Bilbao). The new movement’s pioneer was Sabina Arana, the founder of the Basque nationalist party. He died in prison at age 38 but in his short life he galvanised the use of the Basque language through his prolific writing. He published over 600 journal articles, most of them Basque propaganda. He was imprisoned for the charge of treason when he sent a telegram to US President Teddy Roosevelt praising the US for helping Cuba gain independence from Spain.
The Basques gained a form of independence during the era of the Republic. But after Franco won the Spanish Civil War he clamped down on all independence movements. ETA was founded in the 1950s under an atmosphere of brutal repression. Originally called EKIN (Basque “to act”) it changed its name to ETA in 1959. In the sixties they adopted a Marxist-Leninist philosophy but its early activity was minor. The destroyed Spanish symbols and hung the forbidden Basque flag. In 1968 they killed their first Spanish policeman. That death led to a series of tit-for-tat killings between the police and ETA.
But it was in 1973 when they became internationally known when they successfully assassinated Franco’s likely successor Luis Carrero Blanco. Blanco was in a heavily armoured car leaving mass when ETA placed 100kg of explosives in a tunnel they had excavated under the street many months in advance. The blast was so great it catapulted the vehicle over the church and landed it on a second floor balcony on the other side. The violence of the explosion was such that to this day Blanco is referred as “the first Spanish astronaut”. The enraged Franco executed the attackers using the "garrote vil" which exerts a slow paced increasing pressure on the victim until it crushes his neck. The sadistic nature of Franco’s revenge was instrumental in many countries downgrading the relations with Spain and eased the path for a civilian successor when Franco died two years later.
In the post Franco era, ETA split into two groups; one political and the other military. In the 1980s, the political wing accepted an amnesty from the new democratic government in Madrid and decided to work for change within the system. But the military wing kept up their terrorist activity. From 1985 onwards they started to plant deadly car bombs in Madrid and Barcelona. ETA suffered a devastating blow when its three leaders were arrested in France in 1992. Though they kept up an anarchist presence after this, the time was ripe for a negotiated settlement. They offered the cessation of all armed ETA activity if the Spanish government would recognize the Basque people as having sovereignty over their territory. Spain rejected the offer and the violence continued. The 1997 Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland gave impetus to the peace initiative in the Basque Country. One year later, ETA declared a ceasefire and began dialogue with the government. This lasted until 2000 when ETA resumed their Madrid bombing campaign.
A year later, the September 11 attacks on the US severely impacted ETA. Anti-terror laws were toughened up, there was more international police co-operation and most importantly there was less tolerance in the community for this type of violent solution. In 2002, the US froze assets of twenty one people associated with ETA. While they have had sporadic success since then, they have suffered many arrests in France and Spain. In March this year they declared a permanent ceasefire after 40 years of fighting and over 1,000 deaths. The Basques have won limited political success in that time and have their own parliament based in Gasteiz (Vitoria). Three Basque provinces are represented in the parliament and they have their own police, TV, education and health systems. The Basque Country is believed to be the wealthiest part of Spain. But while their political advances are significant, they would appear not speedy enough for some hardcore ETA elements. Spain will be on tenterhooks to see what are the consequences of Saturday’s declaration. Never put all your Basques in one exit.