Basque separatists ETA end Europe's last armed insurgency

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San Sebastian (Spain) (AFP)

Basque separatist group ETA formally declared its dissolution Thursday, marking the definitive end to western Europe's last armed insurgency after more than four decades of violence.

Created in 1959 at the height of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, ETA was blamed for hundreds of killings and kidnappings in its fight for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France.

The group said in a "final" statement it has "completely dismantled all its structures" and "has put an end to all its political activity".

"ETA wishes to end a cycle of the conflict between the Basque Country and the Spanish and French states; the cycle of the use of political violence," it added in the statement, dated May 3 and presented in Switzerland and Spain.

ETA was blamed for the deaths of 829 people during its armed campaign.

The group's highest-profile killing was that of Franco's prime minister and heir apparent, Luis Carrero Blanco, in a Madrid car bombing in 1973.

ETA also kidnapped dozens of business leaders to finance its activities, leading many people to leave the wealthy northern Basque region.

Weakened in recent years by the arrest of its leaders, ETA announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011 and began formally surrendering its arms last year.

- 'Noise and propaganda' -

ETA had already announced that it would be fully disbanding in a leaked letter addressed to various groups and figures involved in recent peace efforts and published Wednesday by Spanish online newspaper El Diario.

International mediators will hold a peace conference in southwest France on Friday. Irish former Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams and representatives of several Spanish political parties are expected to attend.

But Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy earlier on Thursday dismissed the planned announcement of ETA's disbanding as "noise and propaganda" and vowed there would be "no impunity" for the group's crimes.

"ETA can announce its disappearance but its crimes do not disappear, nor do the efforts to pursue and punish them," he said in the northern city of Logrono.

"We don't owe them anything and we have nothing to thank them for."

While an overwhelming majority of Basques welcome the end of violence, many still want independence.

The separatist coalition EH Bildu, the second largest grouping in the regional parliament, won 21 percent of the votes in the 2016 regional elections.

The party has long called for the roughly 300 ETA prisoners held across Spain and France to be transferred to jails closer to the Basque region and their families.

The regional leader of Spain's Basque Country, Inigo Urkullu of the nationalist PNV party, said he hoped Madrid would soon bring ETA prisoners closer to the Basque region.

"It responds to a demand of the majority of Basque society," he said in an interview published earlier on Thursday in Spanish newspaper El Pais.

"ETA never should have existed. It puts an end to a dark chapter of 60 years," he added.

- 'Open wounds' -

Apart from ETA victims, there were also separatists killed by far-right groups and death squads backed by members of Spain's security forces in what has become known as a "dirty war" campaign.

According to a December report commissioned by the Basque regional government, more than 4,100 complaints of police torture were made between 1960 and 2014.

Those victims are also demanding they be acknowledged.

"If you don't recognise part of the suffering, it's very difficult to create conditions for... reconciliation," said Ane Muguruza, 28.

Her father Josu, a lawmaker for Herri Batasuna, ETA's political wing, was murdered in 1989 by far-right militants she believes were state-backed.

"It's very difficult when there are open wounds," she said.

"To close them, you have to clean and cure them. And for that to happen, there must be acknowledgment, it's crucial."