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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Gunmen make threats in name of Basque group ETA

MADRID (Reuters) - Three hooded gunmen claiming to speak for the Basque guerrilla group ETA have told a rally their armed struggle for independence from Spain continues, despite an ETA ceasefire declaration, Spanish media said on Sunday.

ETA usually publishes its statements in the Basque newspaper Gara or distributes them on video, and it was not possible to confirm whether Saturday's message had its approval or had any implication for the ceasefire.

The hooded men turned up with guns in their hands at an open-air ceremony of homage to dead ETA members, the Basque television channel EITB said on its web page on Sunday.

They read out a communique saying: "We will keep fighting, with weapons in our hands, until we achieve independence and socialism in the Basque land," then fired into the air and disappeared into the trees.

The statement was also sent to two Basque language newspapers, media reports said.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told ETA it must cease violence unconditionally.

"We are going to be firm as we go forward," he said in a speech in Barcelona. "The rules of the game are clear: respect for the law and peace, and peace means the absence of violence, of absolutely any kind of violence ... The end of violence has no price."

ETA is classed as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States and has killed more than 800 people in the last four decades in its campaign for an independent Basque state carved out of northern Spain and southwest France.

But in March it declared a truce and opened contacts with the government. There have been no formal peace talks yet.

Saturday's statement follows a fresh bout of street violence in the Basque Country in recent days, during which gangs have burned a bus and attacked a radio station's offices.

The Spanish government tends to look on these attacks as negotiating tactics.

Conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, whose party is fiercely critical of negotiations with ETA, said there was nothing to discuss with the group. "ETA has not changed. ETA is still a terrorist organization," he said.

ETA has not offered to disarm and initial contacts are expected to center on the location and possible early release of ETA members serving sentences in jails all over Spain.
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