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Basques Want Separate Status: Like Puerto Rico’s?

December 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

BILBAO, Spain (AP) -- Tens of thousands of people marched in silence through the coastal city of Bilbao on Sunday to demand the dissolution of the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

The noon rally was convened by the Basque regional government, run by the moderate Basque Nationalist Party, which says it favors independence through peaceful means and rejects ETA and its 34-year-old campaign of bombings and shootings.

At the front of the procession were eight members of the party's youth wing, carrying a banner which read ``ETA, kampora,'' which is Basque for ``ETA, disappear.''

``I hope this is the last time I have to demonstrate against ETA,'' said Alberto Gomez, a 48-year-old bank employee.

Bilbao municipal police estimated attendance at 60,000.

All of Spain's mainstream parties in the region took part except for the Basque branch of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party. It said the march was a tactic by Basque President Juan Jose Ibarretxe, whom the Madrid government accuses of being soft on ETA and its now-suspended political wing, Batasuna.

Ibarretxe infuriated the Spanish government this autumn with a proposal to make the Basque region an associated free state, along the lines of Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States. Aznar rules out any change in the Basque region's status as part of Spain.

Ibarretxe's government says it had been planning for weeks to stage a rally against ETA and that the march was not just in response to last week's shooting death of a policeman outside Madrid by an alleged ETA commando unit of two men. The government says the two were headed into the city to stage bombing attacks on New Year's Eve.

Demonstrators criticized the Popular Party Sunday for missing a chance to join moderate Basques in denouncing ETA, blamed for more than 800 deaths since 1968.

``I don't understand the Popular Party's position,'' said Marialuisa Antxia, a 49-year-old homemaker. ``The theme of this rally should bring together all democratic forces in the Basque country.''

Also Sunday, a man considered to be a top ETA military chief slipped from jail in southwest France, police said. Ibon Fernandez de Iradi escaped from the Bayonne police station after being questioned Saturday night.

Madrid has long sought him in connection with some 18 attacks, including the killing of an industrialist, a politician and a Basque police officer. French police searched for him and set up roadblocks around the region.

France and Spain cooperate closely to hunt down ETA members. France's peaceful Basque country is used by ETA as a safe haven.

Iradi was arrested Thursday along with eight others in what Spain hailed as one of the biggest blows to the armed separatist organization.

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