Basque group ETA starts decommissioning arms: Monitors

AFP , Friday 21 Feb 2014

Ram Manikkalingam, a member of the commission overseeing the Basque group ETA's ceasefire, announced in 2011, third right, shows a document from ETA after the armed group announced a first step in disarmament, putting some weapons and explosives out of use, in Bilbao northern Spain, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Basque group ETA has begun giving up its weapons, international monitors said Friday, a step towards a historic disarmament by western Europe's last major violent separatist movement.

An expert commission monitoring a ceasefire in ETA's decades-long armed campaign released a video of black-masked members of the group presenting guns, bullets and explosives to monitors.

"The commission has verified that ETA has sealed and put beyond operational use a specified quantity of arms, munitions and explosives," the body's spokesman, Ram Manikkalingam, told reporters in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao.

"The commission is confident that this step is significant and credible. We believe that it will lead to the putting beyond operational use of all ETA's arms, munitions and explosives," the Sri Lankan spokesman said.

Spain's conservative government shrugged off the move by ETA, which is classed as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz reiterated the government's demand for ETA's "unconditional disbandment" and its "total and definitive defeat" by Spain's security forces.

"With all respect, we do not need these international verifiers," he told a news conference minutes before Friday's announcement. "The civil guard and police are enough for us."

But ETA's move sparked rare optimism in the Spanish Basque country.

"It is a small step, it is not sufficient, but it is a first and necessary step towards complete disarmament," the regional president Inigo Urkullu, a conservative nationalist, told a news conference after the announcement.

"This is a step on a journey with no return that should have on its horizon the complete and total disarmament of ETA," he added.

ETA is blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a four-decade campaign of shootings and bombings for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.

The commission's video, broadcast by BBC television and posted online by Spanish media, showed two ETA members presenting a table laden with weapons and explosives to Manikkalingam and Ronnie Kasrils, a South African former minister.

It said the arms in the video, which was dated to January 2014, were sealed, inventoried and put out of use.

The Spanish and French governments refuse to negotiate with ETA and Spain does not recognise Manikkalingam and his International Verification Commission.

ETA has been weakened over recent years by the arrests of its senior leaders in Spain and France. Only about 30 of its active members are thought to be still at large.

In October 2011 it announced a "definitive end to armed activity" but refused to formally disarm and disband.

Meanwhile, non-violent leftist Basque nationalist parties have gained political influence and increasing power through regional elections.

Over recent months ETA members have tried to gain concessions from the Spanish government over prison conditions, outraging victims' families.

Spain and France have ignored ETA's request to negotiate its disbandment on conditions such as transferring prisoners to jails closer to home.

Hopes of progress were raised however on January 11 when rival Basque political parties joined together in a demonstration supporting that demand.

ETA was formed in 1959 during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco by a group of Basque nationalist students.

It carried out its last known deadly attack in 2009, when it killed two police officers by a bomb under their car.

In October the European Court of Human Rights prompted the release of dozens of jailed ETA members by overturning a Spanish law that extended their prison terms.

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