Basque separatist warns of IRA-type split within ETA

MADRID — ETA hardliners could form a new more violent offshoot, similar to the Real IRA, a separatist leader warned Monday, as Madrid snubbed a call by the outlawed Basque group for international mediation.

ETA, blamed for 829 deaths in a flagging campaign of bombings and shootings to secure an independent Basque homeland, on Sunday called on international mediators to help resolve the decades-old conflict.

That followed a September 5 video declaration in which it said it had decided several months ago to halt armed offensive actions. But the ceasefire was rejected outright by Madrid for failing to promise a permanent end to the violence.

The government also Monday dismissed the latest proposal, with Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega saying it contained “nothing new.”

“ETA knows that the only thing that has any value is the definitive and complete end to violence and arms,” she said.

Patxi Zabaleta, the head of non-violent Basque separatist group Aralar, said ETA must agree to “unilaterally end (violence), verifiably and without any political benefits.

“That is what we are hoping for. But there remains the risk of a split (within ETA), similar to the Real IRA,” he told the newspaper El Pais.

The Real IRA (Irish Republican Army) split from the Provisional IRA — once the main Catholic militant organisation opposed to British rule in Northern Ireland — in 1997 over the latter’s support for a peace drive.

Some ETA fighters who favour a continuation of the campaign of violence could form splinter group like “that of the Real IRA, marginalised and ineffective,” Zabaleta said.

ETA’s political wing Batasuna, with which he had met three times recently, was determined to work for “the end of violence,” as it has indicated since early this year, he added.

Batasuna wanted to “move forward on this path,” and if that was not possible “there would be a break-up” between Batasuna and ETA.

Batasuna, which has been banned since 2003 for its links with ETA, hopes to once again be declared a legal political party in time to take part in regional elections in the Basque Country in 2011.

Documents seized in a police operation last week against Ekin, an organisation close to ETA, revealed tensions between ETA and Batasuna, El Pais said.

ETA’s latest communique on Sunday was addressed to international mediators who had called in Brussels in March for the group to declare a “permanent, fully verified ceasefire.”

ETA thanked and paid respect to the mediators but did not reply specifically to their demand for a permanent, verifiable ceasefire.

“We are ready to study jointly the steps that should be taken, including commitments that should be taken by ETA,” the group said in the Basque-language communique published in two pro-independence dailies, Gara and Berria.

“If there is a democratic will, it is possible to resolve the conflict here and now,” ETA said, according to excerpts translated into Spanish by domestic media.

The armed group reportedly named four of the mediators for future talks: South Africans Archbishop Desmond Tutu and FW de Klerk, former Northern Ireland leader John Hume and former Irish Republic president Mary Robinson.

Both de Klerk and Hume are Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

De Klerk’s spokesman said Monday he would consider mediating in the conflict if formally asked.

There was no immediate reaction from the other three named.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government refuses to negotiate with ETA unless it abandons the armed struggle, recalling that the group broke a previous promise to end the bloodshed.

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