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MADRID – After a violent 60-year struggle that sought to create a Basque homeland in Spain through blood and bullets, the militant separatist group ETA says it has dismantled its organizational structure and "ending its journey."
The move, announced Wednesday, is seen as the final step in the group's gradual disappearance and the conclusion of one of the bloodiest nationalist conflicts in recent European history.
A look at what has been happening and what might come next:
WHAT IS ETA AND WHAT DID IT DO?
ETA is an acronym for "Euskadi ta Askatasuna," or "Basque Homeland and Freedom," in the Basque language.
Founded in 1958 during Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship, the group wanted to carve out an independent Basque country straddling northern Spain and southwest France. ETA grabbed global headlines when it killed the dictator's anointed successor, Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973.
Even after Spain transitioned to democracy in the late '70s, the group continued to terrorize Spain, and to a lesser extent France, for over four decades with gun and bomb attacks and kidnappings. In the 1980s, news bulletins in Spain and across the world regularly showed grisly footage of the latest ETA attack.
In all, the group killed 853 people and injured nearly 2,600, kidnapping dozens and threatening hundreds.
After the turn of the century, attention shifted toward jihadist attacks on Spanish soil, especially after Madrid train bombings in 2004 by Islamic militants killed 191 people.
GRADUAL WINDING DOWN
The 2004 arrest of senior ETA figure Mikel Antza, and the capture of important ETA weapons and documents, was a major coup for Spanish authorities.
In 2011, with its public support in the Basque country ebbing, ETA declared a "definitive ceasefire." Last year, it disarmed. On Wednesday, ETA announced it is disbanding and shutting down all its functions.
According to Spanish officials, ETA currently has fewer than 50 active members, and most of them are said to be living abroad.
Survivors of ETA attacks and families of victims have already warned that reconciliation won't be easy.
Covite, an association of victims, survivors and their relatives campaigning for ETA members to be held to account, rebuked the separatist group for failing to provide information about hundreds of unsolved crimes and failing to condemn its own history of terror and violence.
The Spanish government, meanwhile, said the pursuit of ETA members who committed crimes doesn't end here. There will be "no loophole for the impunity of its crimes," Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said after ETA's announcement.
As of last month, 297 ETA members were in prison, according to Spain's Interior Ministry. It said 243 are in prisons around Spain, 53 in France and one in Portugal. ETA and many Basque politicians have long asked for them to be moved to prisons in the Basque country, but the Spanish government has not publicly committed to granting that request.
In an editorial Thursday, Spain's El Pais newspaper said: "Unfortunately, the disappearance of the ETA brand will not have any immediate effect on Spanish society, which must still mete out justice to the criminals, care for the victims, fully restore peaceful coexistence in the Basque country and, once and for all, turn the page."
There is little fear that ETA will undergo a transformation similar to that of the Irish Republican Army. When the dominant IRA faction, the Provisionals, renounced violence and officially disarmed in 2005, smaller rival groups sought to fill the vacuum, particularly in racketeering operations. One of the splinter groups was the so-called Real IRA, which continued to carry out violent crimes.
Spanish media reported last week that a small group of Basque separatists under the acronym ATA (Amnesty and Freedom) that separated from the traditional Basque separatist political groups may have stolen weapons from ETA.
Few think the group, which has staged protests in the Basque city of Bilbao, is any reason to worry. "You always need to worry about anybody with a gun, but I don*t think we are seeing the resurgence of a new ETA because they lack the social backing that ETA had," says Gaizka Fernandez, a researcher with Spain's Memorial Center for the Victims of Terrorism.
WHAT NEXT FOR BASQUE NATIONALISM?
Public and political support for Basque nationalism has not gone away, though it is not as loud as the headline-grabbing bid for separatism in the northeastern Catalonia region.
ETA says in the letter announcing its dissolution that the root of the Basque problem — the desire of many Basques to have their own country — remains unresolved. "The conflict did not begin with ETA and it will not cease with the end of ETA's journey," it said.
It added that its dissolution brings a new opportunity to end the conflict over the Basque region's future. "Let's not repeat the errors, let's not allow for problems to rot," it said, calling for the government to pay attention to Basque ambitions.