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Basque separatist group ETA to vote on full dissolution by summer

MADRID (Reuters) - Leaders of Basque separatist militant group ETA are asking its members to vote on whether it should dismantle itself completely by the summer, it said in a statement in newspaper Gara.

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ETA, which killed more than 850 people during a campaign to carve out an independent state in northern Spain and southwest France, is practically inactive after it handed over arms in April to end nearly half a century of separatist violence.

With the help of mediators, it led French authorities to caches of weapons, explosives and ammunition. It had declared a ceasefire in 2011.

The dissolution vote follows months of internal debate, said Gara, a Basque regional newspaper though which ETA usually releases its statements. Most of the group’s members are serving time in prison.

“The end of the cycle is increasingly evident, and as a result of decisions that were made, it has already occurred to a great extent,” the statement said, without making clear how a definitive dissolution would be carried out.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said on Thursday in a Twitter post that statements were not enough, and he called on ETA to dissolve completely and apologize to victims.

Spain, a country of strong regional identities, is currently grappling with a peaceful separatist movement in Catalonia, which has divided the northeastern region and triggered one of the country’s worst political crises since the end of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975.

ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna - Basque Country and Freedom) was founded in 1959 out of anger among Basques at political and cultural repression under Franco.

The group gained notoriety as one of Europe’s most deadly separatist groups. Its first known victim was a secret police chief in San Sebastian in 1968 and its last a French policeman shot in 2010.

It became gradually weaker over the past decade after hundreds of its members were arrested and weapons seized in joint Spanish and French operations.

Reporting By Raquel Castillo and Jesús Aguado; editing by Sonya Dowsett and John Stonestreet