Thousands march for Basque party in Spain

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Spain's troubled Basque region Saturday, calling for the government to legalize a new pro-independence party that says it rejects violence by armed separatist group ETA.

The Supreme Court on March 24 denied Sortu legal status and barred it from running in local elections in May, finding that the party is a repackaged version of ETA's outlawed political wing Batasuna.

Sortu can appeal to the Constitutional Court but that ruling will likely come after the May 22 elections.

Protesters carried placards saying "For the normalization of the Basque region, legalization now," and marched to Bilbao's town hall in silence.

The gathering was unusual in that Basque national flags were not visible, unlike at almost all separatist rallies. Another uncommon feature was that no one carried banners with ETA prisoners on them. Basque separatists have for decades pressed the Spanish government to allow ETA members convicted of terrorist offenses to serve their prison sentences in the Basque region instead of at jails in distant corners of the country.

Ainoa Bilbao, 39, who was born in Bilbao but now lives in Britain, had traveled from London to be at the march. "I expect this to be a step on the way to the legalization of Sortu and toward the normalization of the Basque region," said Bilbao, adding she hoped the Constitutional court will legalize Sortu.

Koldo Amezketa, 67, said he was marching to draw the attention of those with a capacity to right injustices in the Basque region. "An important part of the Basque region's political options has been made void by the Supreme court's judgment," Amezketa said.

The new party, which was unveiled on Feb. 7, is the culmination of intense internal debates within ETA-linked pro-independence groups which concluded that bombs and bullets were no longer an effective way to seek a Basque state independent of Spain and France.

The Spanish government has repeatedly said Batasuna and its members must reject ETA and condemn violence in order to regain legal status and take part in Basque politics.

Separatists claim that around 15 percent of the Basque population would vote for Batasuna, a number too large to disenfranchise.

Opponents to Basque separatism say Batasuna militants must be stopped from accessing local government budgets to back ETA.

ETA declared a cease-fire in September and went further in January by calling it permanent, although it has called 11 truces throughout its 40-year history of violent separatism.

The most recent "permanent" cease-fire was in 2006, but it ended with a car bomb at a parking garage at Madrid's international airport that killed two people after attempted negotiations with the government were perceived by ETA to be going nowhere.

ETA has killed more than 825 people since the late 1960s and is considered a terrorist organization by Spain, the European Union and the U.S.


Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.