ETA says willing to disarm
San Sebastian - Basque separatist group ETA said on Friday it may disarm but wants its prisoners freed, issuing the demand just nine days before Spain's general elections.
It was the first public comment by ETA since it announced on October 20 the end of a 40-year campaign of bombing and shooting to create a Basque homeland, blamed for 829 deaths.
Spain's ruling Socialists and the conservative opposition Popular Party, widely expected to win the November 20 election in a landslide, have both ruled out negotiating with ETA.
They demand instead that ETA surrender its weapons and disband without conditions or recompense.
Two spokespeople for ETA, listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and United States, issued the new proposal in an interview with Basque daily Gara, which often acts as an ETA mouthpiece.
ETA is "willing to discuss" surrendering arms but it demands in exchange the release of its roughly 700 members held in prisons in Spain and France, one of the spokesmen said.
"The process must lead to the return to their homes of all Basque prisoners," said one of the spokespeople, who were not identified and appeared in photos wearing black berets and white masks.
"Can anyone imagine peace with prisons in Spain and France full of Basque political prisoners? Any other option can only be understood on the basis of vengeance and individual political interests, not on the desire to build a closed and lasting solution."
Act with responsibility
ETA, which seeks to carve out a homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France, also appealed for a "greater adhesion" to the political project of left-wing Basque separatists.
The ETA comments were seen as an attempt to boost pro-Basque independence coalition Amaiur, which aims to enter the national parliament in Madrid by winning seats in the general election.
Basque separatist parties performed strongly in local elections in May, becoming the second-strongest political froce in the Basque region and taking control of major cities such as San Sebastian.
Even before ETA declared an end to violence, pollsters were predicting Amaiur would win up to four seats in Spain's national parliament, which would be a historic first.
ETA also renewed its appeal for talks with the Spanish and French governments.
Neither France nor Spain has formally responded to the call for dialogue with ETA.
Spain's government welcomed ETA's declaration last month that it was giving up violence but said it would not soften its stance on the group before the general elections.
Popular Party leder Mariano Rajoy has flatly ruled out negotiating with ETA if in government.
ETA called on him to act "with responsibility".
"Given this historical conjuncture, those who have a high probability of becoming the head of the government must act with responsibility, and we can suppose that Rajoy understands this," one of the spokespeople said.
Despite their declarations, the party that wins November 20 elections will likely negotiate with ETA, said Gorka Landaburu, director of magazine Cambio 16 and a Basque expert who in 2001 was wounded by a letter bomb sent by the outfit.
"When a government is given the opportunity to finish off a terrorist organisation, it will take it," he said.
Weakened by a series of arrests of its members, ETA has not carried out an attack on Spanish soil since August 2009.
The ETA spokespeople acknowledged that the "armed struggle... had shown signs of of exhaustion" and that it was time to "close a cycle to open another. And this required making a decision over the armed struggle".
ETA is "not insensitive" to the suffering caused by its actions, one of the spokespeople told Gara, after the group was criticised for making no apology to its victims in its declaration last month.