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TOWARD THE END OF ETA

ETA took peace decision after Bildu's electoral success in May

'Abertzale' forced to accelerate arms-abandonment announcement after Zapatero's early poll call

Although ETA made the historic announcement that it was laying down its weapons after 43 years of terrorism last Thursday, the decision was taken in the summer, probably in July. "We have no doubt that ETA has made the decision to quit," stated Rufi Etxeberria, a leader of the abertzale (the radical pro-sovereignty political circles which have sympathized with ETA) on September 11.

Yet the Basque terrorist group took several more weeks to present this decision in public. The abertzale paved the way by organizing an international conference in San Sebastián that attracted world leaders including former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the former prime ministers of Ireland and Norway, Bertie Ahern and Gro Harlem Brutland. One of the event organizers was Brian Currin, a conflict mediator known for his work in South Africa and Northern Ireland, and who has been involved in the Basque Country since the abertzale asked him for help with their demands for ETA prisoners over two years ago.

Between last Tuesday and Thursday, Currin convinced ETA to draft a clear, precise, to-the-point statement regarding its definitive end of violence, in contrast with the group's habitual long-winded and obscure announcements.

But in order to get to that point, it took ETA six months to assimilate the abertzale's public commitment to turn their back on violence, a move that led to their return to the political arena in May elections through a new coalition named Bildu, controlled by former members of the outlawed Batasuna. This move weakened ETA even further by undermining its public support from a traditional pool of political sympathizers.

In February of this year, the abertzale produced and voted overwhelmingly in favor of a document called Zutik Euskalherria, which favored peaceful politics over armed strategies. This decision bore fruit when Bildu was allowed to run in the local elections of May 22, achieving the best results in abertzale history: 25 percent of the vote in the Basque region. It was definitive proof that the peaceful-means strategy worked, as opposed to the disastrous results of ETA's own violent methods.

Yet the road has been even longer if one considers that the last ETA ceasefire was in 2006 ? a ceasefire it broke by killing two people in a bomb attack against Barajas airport in December of that year. During the past five years the abertzale has essentially been in negotiations with ETA to convince it to quit for good. Neither the central nor the Basque governments had any role in this process.

By July, with ETA's decision in the bag but still under wraps, the abertzale were hoping for two other major victories: the legalization of their own party Sortu (Bildu is a coalition of former Batasuna members and the legal parties Eusko Alkartasuna and Alternatiba) and a Constitutional Court decision that could release dozens of ETA inmates in a short space of time.

But the timetable was broken when Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced early elections on November 20. There was no time to wait for the court's decision. It was urgent to keep going before a likely change in government to the conservative Popular Party. The abertzale rewrote their schedule for October, and quickly set up the international conference to provide a world stage for ETA's announcement.