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Eta disbands - but Basque separatist prisoners' fate unresolved

media A man holds a Basque flag at a demonstration supporting Eta prisoners held in Bilbao, 21 April 2018. Reuters/Vincent West

The Basque separatist group Eta announced in a letter published Wednesday that it has completely disbanded after a six-decade campaign that claimed 850 lives. Questions remain over the fate of Eta prisoners and whether there can be lasting peace.

Eta’s letter, dated 16 April and made public by Spanish news website El Diario, says the group “has completely dissolved all of its structures and declared an end to its political initiative”.

If true, the announcement marks the last step to the group’s dissolution.

Founded in 1959 to fight for independence from Spain, it announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011 and handed over its weapons last year.

Eta, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country and Freedom), had been expected to make the announcement towards the end of the week, to coincide with an internationally mediated peace conference in the French part of the Basque country.

The conference aims to give Basque separatist parties the opportunity to negotiate outstanding issues related to the group’s dissolution, but it is unclear if it will have a meaningful impact.

“For the moment, it’s looking like it will mainly just be representatives from EH Bildu, the party that’s historically been most associated with Eta,” says Caroline Gray, a specialist on Basque politics at the University of Aston in the UK.

“There’s a reluctance to get involved when nobody’s quite clear what those who are putting an end to Eta are going to actually say at this conference and what their demands are going to be.”

Prisoners question threat to lasting peace

The issue most likely to come up is the fate of the 270 Eta members in prisons across France and Spain, which have a long policy of jailing Eta prisoners far from home, making it harder for them to communicate with each other adn their families.

Mediators and Basque nationalists say that, without a reciprocal gesture on the parts of the French and especially the Spanish governments, lasting peace in the region will be elusive.

“Like in any other conflict and any other peace process, those that have been involved in the conflict and those that are imprisoned as a result of the conflict must be part of the solution of the conflict,” says Gorka Elejabarrieta of Basque independence party Sortu, which is part of a coalition with EH Bildu.

“If we still have prisoners as a consequence of that conflict, that can obviously keep us from the best scenario,” he says. “It will not help anybody in what this society is seeking, which is a lasting peaceful solution for once and for all.”

Spanish government reluctant to negotiate

It remains to be seen whether any of the Basque region’s other parties will attend the conference and it is next to certain that no Spanish government representatives will be present.

“Even when international mediators are involved, the Spanish political parties have been against all of that, saying they still do not accept the notion of a conflict between the Basque country and Spain, that this has not been a conflict, this has been a Basque terrorist group that’s been one-sidedly killing on the other side,” says Caroline Gray

“So there’s still a stark division in how the two sides see this issue and, despite international mediation, that division has never been closed.”

Family members of victims of Eta attacks weighed in on the group’s announcement to say they were not convinced it has had a change of heart.

Consuelo Ordonez, who leads the victims’ group Covite, said “the only decent sentence that the terrorists could have uttered starts and ends: ‘We should never have existed.’ ”

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