T he Basque separatist organisation ETA staged its disarmament on April 8 in front of a crowd of supporters in the French city of Bayonne, putting an end to the longest-running conflict in Europe since World War Two. “We took up arms for the Basque people and now we leave them in their hands so that Basques can continue taking steps to achieve peace and freedom for our country,” the militant group earlier said in a statement.
On behalf of ETA (‘Euskadi ta Askatasuna’, or ‘Basque Country and Freedom’), Jean Noël ‘Txetx’ Etcheverry revealed where its remaining equipment caches were stored, leading the French police to 3.5 tonnes of weapons, ammunition and explosives.
After 43 years of violence and 829 deaths, the gesture was viewed with scepticism south of the border. ETA has not fully disbanded and counterterrorism officers told Spanish media the disarmament had not been complete.
For Spanish Home Secretary Juan Ignacio Zoido, the disarmament was not voluntary, but forced by the fear that police might discover the arsenal. He described it as “mere propaganda” by an “agonising terrorist organisation”.
Sixty-five percent of Basques surveyed by the University of the Basque Country last year said they disavowed ETA, up from 35% in 1999.
Born in 1959 to resist the dictator General Franco, who was particularly repressive in Catalonia and Basque Country, ETA started life as a group of students who painted walls with Basque slogans and regional flags. Soon however it evolved into a paramilitary organisation.
The first killing was of a Spanish rural policeman gunned down in 1968. During Spain’s transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975, the number of victims escalated, peaking in 1987 when ETA detonated a bomb in a shopping centre in Barcelona, killing 21 people. A French policeman was the group’s final victim before it announced a ceasefire in 2011.
From 1983 to 1987, the Spanish government illegally financed death squads to counteract ETA’s attacks. In 2010, a report by the Basque government's Office of Victims of Terrorism claimed 66 ETA members had been killed by paramilitary and right-wing groups.
With the violence over, both sides now want to shape how the conflict will be remembered. For Spanish authorities, it will go down as a victory of democracy over terrorism. For Basque politician Arnaldo Otegi, it shows that it is impossible to negotiate with governments which do not recognise different identities.