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Basque militant separatist released from Spanish jail

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LOGRONO, Spain (Reuters) - The former leader of the banned Basque separatist party Batasuna, political wing of armed militants ETA, left prison on Tuesday after serving a six-and-a-half year sentence for trying to re-start the illegal party after it had been shut down.

Arnaldo Otegi, a key figure in the separatist movement of the north-eastern Spanish region, walked smiling from the prison gates where a crowd of supporters gathered waving the Basque regional flag and shouting “Independence”.

Batasuna was banned and shut down in 2003 for links to ETA. In October 2009, Otegi was arrested for attempting to set up the part again. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, later reduced to six and a half years.

While Otegi has served his sentence, ETA has been severely weakened by the arrests of hundreds of its members and seizures of its weapons during government crack downs in both Spain and neighboring France.

ETA, which the Spanish government says has killed more than 800 people, aims to establish an independent Basque state in northern Spain and southern France. It called a unilateral ceasefire in 2011 and pledged to turn in its weapons.

Otegi, formerly Batasuna’s chief spokesman, is forbidden from holding any public role until 2021 by a court ruling but he holds an internal role at nationalist party Sortu, according to El Pais newspaper.

The Basque region, home to around 2 million people and a strong contributor to Spain’s economy given its heavy industry focused on manufacturing, holds local elections this year.

Leftist newcomer Podemos made strong inroads in the region in a December general election, overtaking left-wing nationalist parties to take the biggest chunk of the vote in the Basque Country.

(This story has been refiled to clarify charge in lead)

Writing by Sonya Dowsett Editing by Jeremy Gaunt