MADRID – MADRID (AP) — The armed Basque separatist group ETA, under pressure from political allies to renounce violence and decapitated repeatedly by the arrests of its leaders, announced another cease-fire Sunday, suggesting it might turn to a political process in its quest for an independent homeland.
But the Basque regional government immediately dismissed the announcement as meaningless because ETA failed to renounce violence or announce its dissolution.
"It's absolutely insufficient because it does not take into account what the vast majority of Basque society demands and requires from ETA, which is that it definitively abandon terrorist activity," Basque regional interior minister Rodolfo Ares said in the first official comment on the announcement.
Spaniards also expressed skepticism, saying they had seen ETA cease-fires come and go before.
"We give them very little credibility," said Angeles Pedraza, President of the Association of Victims of Terrorism. "Actually, we give them none at all. We are already used to this,"
The new pledge from ETA, which has been fighting for an independent homeland in parts of northern Spain and southwestern France since the late 1960s, left several key questions unanswered. Besides silence on whether it will surrender its weapons, it did not say if the truce was open-ended and permanent, like one declared in 2006, or whether it would halt other activities like extorting money from business leaders or recruiting members.
Nor was there any mention of whether the cease-fire could be monitored by international observers as called for Friday by two Basque parties that back independence: ETA's outlawed political wing Batasuna and a more moderate pro-independence party called Eusko Alkartasuna.
Since late last year, divisions have been emerging and widening between ETA and the political parties that support it. Jailed ETA veterans have also been distancing themselves from the group, and enhanced French police cooperation has proved crucial in recent years in a neighboring country that used to serve as a haven for ETA.
And Friday's statement by those two parties was significant in that it marked the first time they had put down in writing that they wanted ETA to work toward independence through peaceful means, rather than with violence.
Jacques Massey, a journalist with Intelligence Online and author of a French-language book published in February whose title translates as: "ETA: Secret History of a 100-Year War," said "for the first time in the history of ETA, it's not ETA that imposes its line on the political movement. It's the political movement ... that has ended up winning from ETA what it wanted — notably the end of armed hostilities."
Intense pressure from Spanish and French police "left ETA with little strategic or tactical ability. It had little capacity to stir a big movement and cause the Spanish government to flinch."
"Today, under the crackdown, a (ETA) leader keeps his posts between three and five months, then gets arrested ... In the 1980s, they were able to kill 50 or so people a year. Today, they'll kill a maximum of one or two."
Massey added: "That's not enough to make a state bend."
ETA's announcement was not a surprise in Spain — in recent months, many people in the Basque region had been expecting a cease-fire. Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba had said as recently as Friday he was expecting a cease-fire statement from ETA.
ETA's last deadly attack was in July 2009 on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca with a car bomb that killed two police officers. But the group is suspected of having shot and killed a French police officer near Paris in March in a botched car robbery.
The new announcement came in a video sent to the BBC and a statement published by the newspaper Gara, a pro-independence daily that often serves as a mouthpiece for ETA.
The video showed three masked militants sitting at a table with a sign bearing the ETA insignia behind them: a snake curled around an ax.
"ETA makes it known that as of some months ago it took the decision to no longer employ offensive armed actions," the statement said.
It added: "If the government of Spain has the will, ETA, today as in the past, is willing to agree to the democratic minimums necessary to undertake the democratic process." It was not immediately clear what steps it is seeking or if it specifically seeking peace talks.
The announcement came more than four years after ETA announced a cease-fire which it then termed as permanent and which led to peace talks with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government. But it ultimately went nowhere towards ending Europe's last major violent political militancy.
The truce ended with a thunderous car bomb blast in December 2006 that killed two people at Madrid airport. Since then, the government has said repeatedly it would not negotiate with ETA again, insisting the group must simply dissolve.
Since 2008, a total of 238 ETA members have been arrested in Spain, France and elsewhere, the Interior Ministry says, and over the past two years six men described as ETA's top leaders have been arrested, one after the other.
ETA, which is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the U.S., has killed more than 825 people since the late 1960s.
Ares said the group's decision to announce Sunday a cease-fire supposedly decided upon months ago made little sense.
"All the world can understand that decisions should be communicated when they are arrived at, and not months later," he said.
Associated Press Writers Jill Lawless in London and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.