Is the End Near for Basque Separatist Group ETA?

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Vincent West / Reuters

A boy cycles past graffiti which reads "Continue The Fight," in the Basque town of Guernica September 15, 2010.

This story has been updated.

Half a century of police pressure and court convictions has left the Basque separatist group ETA shrunken, battered and shaken by infighting, with the group's political representatives wrestling its militants for leadership of the movement. This internal division was highlighted most recently on Sept. 12, when ETA's fighters called for international mediation to help bring a close to their campaign of violence. Spain has been here before, and the fighting has always returned. But this time, the bickering between ETA and its political arm Batasuna is raising hopes that Basque terrorism, the longest-running armed struggle in the West, is nearing an end.

In its statement last week, ETA said it was willing to accept mediation from the signers of the Brussels Declaration, a group that includes four Nobel peace laureates, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and former Irish President Mary Robinson. The move follows a call by the Brussels Declaration signers in March that ETA declare a permanent and verifiable ceasefire, and that the Spanish government open peace negotiations to finally end more than 50 years of violent struggle for independence that has killed more than 825 people. And on Saturday, Batasuna released a statement, asking ETA for a "permanent, unilateral, and verifiable" ceasefire.

In response to ETA's Sept. 12 statement, Spanish and Basque political party leaders ruled out international arbitration, reiterating the government's insistence that the only option is an unconditional and permanent end to ETA's violence. "There are no shortcuts," said Spain's Vice President María Teresa Fernández de la Vega on Monday, referring to the widely accepted belief that ETA is just trying to buy time while it tries to reorganize.

Since its creation in 2001, Batasuna has supported the armed struggle for independence. Both the E.U. and the U.S. consider it to be a terrorist organization and Spain's Supreme Court outlawed the party in 2003. But recently, Batasuna has grown more assertive in standing up to ETA's insurgent arm, especially since December 2006, when the militants unilaterally broke a truce by bombing the parking lot of a newly opened airport terminal in Madrid and killing two people. The attack only served to undermine ETA's credibility and expose Batasuna to hostility from a Basque community already tiring of terrorism in its name.

According to observers, the fact that Batasuna is now siding with the government on the issue of ETA's disarmament — even if that risks prompting the militants to hit back with violence — is a sign that the group may be too fractured to exist much longer. "The difference this time is that the decision to renounce the armed struggle has been taken by Batasuna and it has decided to follow through regardless of the consequences," says Jon Abril, vice-coordinator of the pro-independence Aralar political group, which in 2001 broke ranks with ETA. "Even if it can't convince ETA to disarm, it seems clear Batasuna will follow the same road of Aralar," thus completely isolating the group from even its closest supporters.

On Tuesday, top Batasuna official Txelui Moreno said the party is committed to "a democratic process based exclusively on political and democratic means," and added that any other action would be against the group's mandate "which everyone must obey" — a veiled message to ETA militants.

Many are now asking how long it will take for ETA to give up its armed struggle. According to terrorism expert Ignacio Sánchez Cuenca, the government needs to negotiate with ETA — which would require the group to declare an unconditional and permanent ceasefire. If that were to happen, Batasuna and ETA would jointly try to negotiate their participation in the country's political rule, the freeing of ETA members from jail, and an increase in the already high degree of autonomy that the Basque Country enjoys under Spain's constitution. "States have to combine carrots and sticks," says Sánchez-Cuenca. "But Spain has schizophrenic policies on ETA. There are sticks with short phases of carrots."

The government so far has given no signs it's willing to negotiate. And it doesn't have any incentive to. Spaniards overwhelmingly oppose making any concession to ETA after the group on several occasions betrayed peace efforts with unannounced deadly attacks, while support for ETA in the Basque Country has dropped from 12% in 1981 to 3% in 2010.

Batasuna is hoping it can convince ETA to disarm. If not, the party would likely distance itself from its militant base to pursue a political solution, thus prolonging the slow, bloody defeat of ETA — the U.S. State Department's 2010 global terrorism report estimates ETA still has some 300 active militants; at its peak, membership was in the thousands.

But no matter what happens, analysts agree, ETA seems to be doomed. "If the government's pressure doesn't let up, in one or two years ETA will end up surrendering and dissolving," says Mikel Buesa, a terrorism-finance expert at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid whose brother was killed by ETA in 2000.

In the more immediate future, the key issue is whether or not the Spanish courts allow Batasuna to take part in the next Basque municipal elections in May. So far, odds are against it. To even be considered, Batasuna would have to regroup under a different name and would have to not only renounce violence, but condemn it outright, something it has refused to do so far. "If the state or the judges don't allow Batasuna to take part in the next elections, ETA will break the truce. I think it's unavoidable," says Sánchez Cuenca. "ETA will go back to killing, but its death is still irreversible. The question is whether the government speeds up the process."