Basque separatists ETA apologise in step to disbandment

Bilbao (Spain) (AFP) –


Basque separatist group ETA asked forgiveness from its victims for the first time Friday for the "pain" caused by its decades-long campaign of violence, in a penultimate step towards disbandment.

It was the most comprehensive apology yet by the group, which a mediator says is set to announce its dissolution in a historic declaration within days.

ETA waged a nearly four-decade campaign of bombings and shootings for an independent Basque state in northern Spain and southern France.

"We have caused great pain throughout this long period of armed struggle.... We know this harm cannot be mended," it said in a statement published in the Basque newspaper Gara.

"We wish to express our respect to all the victims of ETA's actions, in that they were harmed as a consequence of the conflict, whether they were killed, injured or harmed in any other way. We are truly sorry."

- Asking forgiveness -

Created in 1959 at the height of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, ETA is blamed for the deaths of at least 829 people before it announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011.

"Due to the various requirements of the armed struggle, our activity has harmed a number of people who had no responsibility whatsoever in the conflict," Friday's statement said.

"We have caused grave harm, which cannot be put right. We ask the forgiveness of these people and their relatives."

Maria del Mar Blanco, leader of a victims' campaign group AVT, complained that the call for forgiveness did not extend to those the group considered legitimate targets, such as police officers and politicians.

"I find it shameful and immoral that they should make a distinction between people who deserved a bullet in the back of the head or a bomb in their car and accidental victims who did not deserve it," she said.

- 'Strength of the state' -

Attacks by ETA and retaliation by Spanish state death squads traumatised Spain, peaking in the 1980s and 1990s.

ETA was weakened in recent years by the arrests of its senior leaders.

After formally renouncing violence in 2011, ETA called for dialogue with the authorities.

Spain and France refused any contact with the group, insisting it disband unconditionally.

It handed over its arms last year.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government celebrated Friday's apology as a vindication for his refusal to compromise with ETA.

"This is nothing less than a consequence of the strength of the state of law that has conquered ETA with the arms of democracy," it said in a statement.

"It is good that the terrorist group has asked forgiveness from its victims," it said.

"It should have asked for forgiveness a long time ago."

- Unconditional disbandment -

ETA members and their associates are held in distant jails to prevent them communicating.

Now they hope to be moved to prisons closer to their families after the disbandment.

They also hope that ETA members jailed for non-violent offences may gain conditional release.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido has warned however that ETA "will get nothing (in return) for disbanding".

Beyond the ranks of the former armed group, left-wing Basque politicians hope the disbandment will boost them ahead of municipal elections in 2019.

- Chapter in history -

The language of ETA's imminent declaration will be closely scrutinised for a clear statement that the group is dissolving.

ETA will make an announcement on May 5 or 6 in the French Basque region, "failing a last-minute surprise", International mediator Alberto Spektorowski said on Thursday.

"It will be clear that a chapter of the history of the Basque Country and of Spain is closed."