Mon, Feb 27, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Thousands march in Madrid to protest ETA negotiations

ANGER Alleged talks between the Spanish government and Basque terrorists ETA prompted a huge demonstration by people from across Spain

AFP , MADRID

Tens of thousands of people marched in downtown Madrid on Saturday to protest the government's anti-terrorism policies and its willingness to negotiate with the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

Crying "Zapatero, resign," referring to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, marchers mobilized by the Association of the Victims of Terrorism (AVT) waved placards scrawled with "Not in my name!" and "Memory, dignity and justice."

Others in the demonstration, which also had the support of the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) and the Catholic Church, bore photos of some of the 800 people killed by ETA during its 40-year campaign to establish a Basque state in northeast Spain and southwest France.

The PP-led Madrid government said 1.4 million people turned out for the demonstration, more than 10 times the police estimate of 110,000.

The AVT and right-wing parties accuse Zapatero's socialist government of negotiating secretly with ETA.

The government denies this and says ETA must lay down its arms as a precondition for any talks.

AVT rented 200 buses to bring people to the capital from all over Spain with the aim of matching the success of a rally it staged last July, which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the capital.

Public opinion in Spain about ETA has become even more polarized as Zapatero began talking in recent months about entering into a peace process and hinting "the beginning of the end" of the group was in sight.

But ETA put Zapatero on the back foot one week ago when it called on Basques to take "new steps" towards peace but failed to declare an expected truce.

On Saturday it released another statement saying that "respect [of the right] of all citizens of the Basque Country to decide" their future was key to resolving the conflict.

Like most people in Spain, the organizers of Saturday's march are against any political concessions, such as offering the recognition of self-determination, or pardons for prisoners, in return for an ETA ceasefire.

Such opinions are however not unanimous. Some ETA victims, most of them Basque socialist legislators, on Wednesday gave their support to Zapatero's efforts "in the hope that future generations might live in peace and freedom."

The widow of Fernando Baesa, a Basque socialist assassinated by ETA six years ago, released a statement on Saturday saying such demonstrations were divisive and only strengthened those bent on violence.

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