French Basque Country set for ETA's final dissolution act

Cambo-les-Bains (France) (AFP) –


ETA ends its days-long dissolution process Friday at a peace conference in the French Basque Country, putting paid 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 conference in the small southwestern French town of Cambo-les-Bains will be attended by international personalities such as Northern Ireland's Gerry Adams.

- Gerry Adams, Powell -

ETA had already announced it would be fully disbanding in a letter leaked Wednesday in Spanish media, addressed to various groups and figures involved in recent peace efforts.

On Thursday, it released a "final declaration" recorded by Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea, better known as "Josu Ternera", a historic high-ranking ETA figure who has been on the run since 2002.

In the recording, he announced that the separatist group had "completely dismantled all its structures" and "put an end to all its political activity".

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

At the peace conference, Northern Ireland's Gerry Adams, the former head of Sinn Fein -- once considered the political wing of the Irish Republican Army -- will be among several attendees.

Adams was active in the Northern Ireland peace process which culminated with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern will also be present, as will Jonathan Powell, who once served as chief of staff for British leader Tony Blair.

On the Spanish side, representatives of Basque nationalist party PNV, in power in the Spanish region, and far-left Podemos will also attend according to media reports.

- 'No impunity' -

Since its ceasefire in 2011, ETA has wanted to follow the United Nations' peace steps of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration into society, just like the FARC rebels in Colombia.

But Madrid has refused to make any gesture of appeasement, under pressure from ETA victim associations.

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

ETA's announcement has also been rejected by victims' groups, who argue it should first and foremost condemn its history of violence and Basque separatists must stop paying public homage to militants as they are released from prison.

They have also asked that light be shed on at least 358 unsolved crimes.

A partial apology by the separatist group last month in which it acknowledged the harm done and apologised to some of its victims -- but not to those it considered legitimate targets such as police -- has done little to stem the criticism.

"The victims are watching with pain and stupor how ETA is being allowed to direct this farce," the Victims of Terrorism Association (AVT) said in a statement.

So to seal the last chapter of its history on Friday, ETA chose the French Basque Country, which it once used as a safe haven.

Neither the Spanish Basque Country's regional government, nor that of neighbouring Navarra, which is considered part of the wider Basque territories, have accepted invitations to attend.

Going forward, the sensitive issue of ETA's 270 militants imprisoned across Spain and France will also need to be addressed.

Separatist coalition EH Bildu, the second largest grouping in the Basque regional parliament, wants the prisoners to be transferred to jails that are closer to home and their families.

Paris has started to make moves in that direction, but for now, Madrid will not hear of it.