BILBAO, Spain – The militant Basque separatist group ETA declared a permanent cease-fire Monday in what it called a firm step toward ending a decades-long independence fight. But Spain's government quickly dismissed the announcement as not going far enough, and demanded ETA disband and lay down its arms.
Masked ETA members wearing berets traditional for the Basque region in this northern corner of Spain announced the cease-fire in a video distributed to Spanish media. ETA's statement also appeared on the website of the pro-independence Basque newspaper Gara, which often serves as a mouthpiece for the militants.
The group, however, did not mention dissolving or giving up weapons — key demands from successive Spanish governments. And a previous cease-fire that ETA declared in 2006 and called permanent ended with violence after only nine months.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said ETA's announcement wasn't enough and that the group must take "more forceful and definitive steps."
"Those who see some element of hope in ETA's announcement need to know that the road ahead is still long, because the only thing that matters is the definitive end of the ETA terrorist group," Zapatero told the Antenna 3 television network.
Europe's last major violent political militant group declared a cease-fire in September, but went farther on Monday by specifying that the group now supports a "permanent and general cease-fire which will be verifiable by the international community."
It added: "This is ETA's firm commitment toward a process to achieve a lasting resolution and toward an end to the armed confrontation."
ETA also said it is open to dialogue and negotiation but it reiterated its standard positions, such as its insistence that the Basque people have the right to decide whether to remain part of Spain or break away.
Zapatero ruled out negotiations, saying the government won't accept conditions imposed by the group and insisted there "will be no dialogue" with ETA.
Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who is also Spain's vice president, said ETA arrogantly maintained a catalog of demands in its cease-fire declaration: "In other words, ETA still wants a price to be paid for ending violence."
"If you ask me if this is the end (of ETA), I would say no. If you ask me if this what Spanish society hoped for, I would say definitely not. Put another way, is this bad news? It is not. But it is not THE announcement," Rubalcaba said.
Basque region residents longing for peace had mixed reactions to the ETA announcement.
"The declaration seems like the same old thing again to me," said Itxasne Solana, a 27-year-old store clerk in Bilbao, the region's main city. "I don't know whether we are any closer to the end of ETA."
Itxaso Aramburu, a 26-year-old university student, said he does not give ETA much credibility but thinks the Spanish government should open a dialogue "to finally put an end to its violence."
Kepa Aulestia, a former ETA member who now works as a political commentator and journalist in the Basque region, said ETA is resisting giving up without some kind of government concession.
But Spain's ruling Socialist Party seems determined not to make any, after getting burned by negotiating with ETA in 2006 following the cease-fire that year that ended with a huge ETA car bombing that killed two people at Madrid's airport.
"We are witnessing a tug of war that ETA is trying to maintain to the effect that it is not yet ready to go away definitively," Aulestia said.
ETA is considered a terrorist organization by Spain, the European Union and the United States. It has killed more than 825 people since the late 1960s, but has recently been devastated by arrests and dwindling support.
Its outlawed political wing, Batasuna, wants to create a new party that rejects violence and turns its leaders into legitimate politicians. Banned in 2003, Batasuna is now backed by some mainstream Basque parties and civic groups, and has become increasingly vocal in its new position that blowing up police cars and shooting politicians is hindering Basques' cherished but unlikely goal of a country of their own.
Ex-Batasuna leaders say they want their party to have a new voice in the small but wealthy region of northern Spain, a proud patch that boasts its own ancient language and culture and already enjoys a broad degree of self-rule.
From Ireland — where ETA and its allied Batasuna party have worked closely with the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein-IRA movement — Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams appealed to Spain to free the imprisoned Batasuna leader, Arnaldo Otegi, and invite him to speedy talks.
Adams said Spain must follow the example set by Britain following the Irish Republican Army's 1997 cease-fire. Sinn Fein gained rapid access to multiparty peace talks on Northern Ireland's future, culminating in the 1998 Good Friday accord. That landmark pact steered the IRA toward eventual disarmament, while Sinn Fein became a leading part of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.
"It is now vital that the Spanish government respond positively and grasp the opportunity to advance a peace process presented by today's statement and quickly establish inclusive political negotiations," Adams said in Dublin.
ETA's political supporters hope to field candidates for Basque municipal elections scheduled for May of this year, and face political and financial oblivion if they are shut out.
Perez Rubalcaba said that Batasuna won't be allowed to do so unless ETA ceases to exist or Batasuna renounces links with ETA.
And he flatly ruled out international verification of any cease-fire, calling this the business of Spain alone.
But an international group will be assembled to eventually engage with ETA and hopefully Spain's government, said Brian Currin, a South African lawyer who was involved in the peace processes for Northern Ireland and South Africa.
"Things have unfolded which I don't think many people believed would happen and they unfolded in terms of a process," Currin said from South Africa. "And I believe that we need to just continue with that process."
ETA's last deadly attack in Spain was a July 2009 car bomb that killed two policemen on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca.
Woolls reported from Madrid. Alan Clendenning contributed from Madrid, and Shawn Pogatchnik contributed from Dublin.