MADRID The Spanish government rejected a permanent ceasefire declared by the Basque separatist group ETA on Monday, saying it did not go far enough and warning that the search for peace was a process that would take time.
ETA, which has killed more than 850 people in its half-century armed struggle for an independent state in northern Spain and southwest France, has been crippled by arrests and Basques' rising support for more peaceful methods.
The weakened group announced a halt to armed attacks three months ago and said on Monday it had made the decision permanent. ETA has been under pressure from its outlawed political wing, Batasuna, which wants to be legitimized to run in local elections.
"ETA has decided to declare a permanent and general ceasefire which will be verifiable by the international community," the group said in an English-language statement on www.gara.net, the website of Basque regional newspaper Gara.
"This is ETA's firm commitment toward a process to achieve a lasting resolution and toward an end to the armed confrontation," the statement added.
ETA has broken ceasefires several times in the past, most recently in 2006 when a truce was ended by a deadly bomb attack at Madrid's airport.
In its Monday statement, the group did not specify how the permanent ceasefire might be internationally verified, nor did it say whether it had decided to turn in weapons and explosives.
Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba demanded that ETA renounce violence permanently and put a definitive and irreversible end to its activities.
"The government has rejected international verification over and over again. In a country under the rule of law it's for the state security forces to verify (the ceasefire)," Rubalcaba said in a brief statement to reporters.
LONG PEACE PROCESS
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the peace process would be a long one and the police would continue to pursue members of the group.
"It's going to be a hard, difficult process to see the end to ETA's activities. We are on the path toward the end of violence, but it's going to take time," he said in an interview with Antena 3 television.
He also said that ETA must abandon its arms or Batasuna must distance itself from ETA for it to have any chance of standing at the next local elections.
Analysts, who have seen previous ceasefires as ETA attempts to regroup with a view to launching new attacks, were skeptical about the latest ETA statement, in which the group said its goal was still self-determination for the Basque region.
"We can't be satisfied with this sort of statement, which does not mean that ETA is disbanding or showing a desire to disappear," Rogelio Alonso, political science professor at Rey Juan Carlos I University, told state radio.
"It's simply an attempt to put pressure on the democratic players to negotiate their demands."
If peace talks were to take place, ETA is expected to demand amnesty for its members and for some 550 prisoners.
ETA called on the Spanish government, and that of France which has helped the Spanish to capture ETA members, to "end all repressive measures" against the group.
In Bilbao, the biggest city in the Basque Country, the ETA statement raised hopes.
"It's really hopeful. Let's see if it gels by summer. What I'm scared of is the reaction from those who don't want the violence to end," said Javier, a waiter, who declined to give his last name.
The rightist opposition Popular Party has traditionally opposed any "appeasement" of ETA and has support from groups representing victims of ETA violence and from civil guard and police organizations.
Thousands of Basques marched on Saturday to protest against government policies toward ETA, such as sending convicted members of the group to prisons far from their families.
(Additional reporting by Arantxa Goyoaga in Bilbao; Nigel Davies, Andres Gonzalez, Raquel Castillo, Jonathan Gleave and Inmaculada Sanz in Madrid; editing by Tim Pearce)