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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Thousands of Spaniards say "no" to ETA talks

MADRID (Reuters) - Victims of ETA's campaign of violence led tens of thousands of protesters through Madrid on Saturday in a warning to Spain's Socialist government not to negotiate with the Basque separatist group.

Marching from the Plaza de la Argentina -- a square where an ETA car bomb wounded 16 civil guards in 1985 -- people hurt in ETA attacks and opposition figures including ex-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar carried banners that read: "Not in my name".

A sea of umbrellas, placards and flags moved slowly through Madrid's posh Salamanca district, as the crowd shouted "Zapatero resign" and "Negotiation is surrender".

Opposition conservatives have accused Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of being soft on ETA since his offer last May to talk to the outlawed group if it abandoned violence for good.

A recent poll showed most Spaniards agree with the policy.

Madrid's opposition-controlled regional government said 1.4 million people turned out in the rain for the protest. Central government officials gave a much lower figure of 111,000.

"I'm so angry about what this government is doing," said hospital administrator Maria Isabel Montesinos, draped in a Spanish flag. "They want to talk with ETA and release ETA prisoners before they've completed their sentence. We say this is wrong. We are true Spaniards."

Newspapers reported this month that a number of ETA prisoners convicted of murders were due to leave prison after serving 18 to 20 years. However, the Supreme Court this week limited reductions for good behavior that such prisoners can receive, meaning they will stay behind bars for 30 years.

ETA, classed as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, has killed more than 800 people since 1968 in its campaign for an independent Basque Country.

Bombings continue but no one has been killed in an ETA attack since May 2003.

Zapatero has denied the government is already in talks with ETA, despite opposition suspicions.

The march was called by the "Association of Victims of Terrorism", which includes people who have been injured, or have had relatives killed, in ETA attacks. It was backed by the opposition Popular Party, which constantly attacks the Socialist government's policy on ETA.

Socialist spokesman Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba accused the opposition of using terrorism for political ends.

"We have lived for three years without a fatality and (there have been) three demonstrations against the government's policy, one for each year without deaths," Rubalcaba said on Saturday.
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