By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman Thursday, June 29, 2006 Posted: 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has said the government will hold talks to secure a lasting peace with the Basque separatist group ETA.
Zapatero's announcement in parliament Thursday came three months after ETA declared a cease-fire, indicating it was ready to end nearly 40 years of violence.
Zapatero is expected to set in motion a round of secret direct talks during the summer involving government officials and ETA leaders, at an unspecified location and time, an aide to Zapatero told CNN.
"The government will start dialogue with ETA," said Zapatero, standing outside the parliament chamber.
He said political issues would be resolved by legitimate political parties.
Zapatero said the process would be "long, tough and difficult" and the government will go forward with "prudence and discretion."
He said the victims and their families will be respected in the process and praised the the efforts of previous prime ministers for attempts to reach a peaceful solution with ETA.
ETA is blamed for more than 800 deaths and thousands of injuries in its nearly 40-year campaign for Basque independence. Its announcement March 22 of a "permanent" cease-fire has raised hopes across Spain for an end to the violence, but also fears that the government could make political concessions to ETA.
Polls show a majority of Spaniards favor talks between the Socialist government and ETA, but the main opposition conservative Popular Party and many of ETA's victims are staunchly opposed, arguing that a democratic government should not negotiate with terrorists.
Shortly before the prime minister's statement, the interior minister met opposition leaders again in a bid to persuade them to support the government.
Zapatero said in a radio interview in late May that the talks would focus on ETA "definitively laying down its arms, disbanding as an organization, and logically, about the future of its members."
Some analysts and Spanish media suggest that could mean the government might be willing to move some of the 490 ETA prisoners in jails spread across Spain to prisons closer to their native Basque region in the north.
And that there might eventually be leniency for ETA prisoners not linked to the most serious crimes, like murder.
But Zapatero has not talked publicly about ceding more political power to the northern Basque region, which already has its own regional parliament, police force, tax collection power and control of health and education.
Opponents of the negotiations say the government should simply use police crackdowns and the courts, backed by political party unity, to finish off ETA.
But proponents say that despite such efforts, ETA has continued its violence over the years, always regrouping after crackdowns, and that peace talks are the best chance of permanently ending the violence.
ETA is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. It has not killed anyone for three years, since May 2003, although its bombings that caused property damage and some injuries continued until the cease-fire announcement in March.
ETA has previously declared cease-fires -- and there have been abortive peace talks in the past. But ETA had never until March declared a "permanent" one, and Zapatero says the government has confirmed since then that ETA is sticking to it.
But some businesses have complained about receiving since March extortion letters from ETA, demanding money in exchange for being spared from attack.
The government says ETA's cease-fire must include not just a halt to the violence but also of ETA's other traditional logistical and fundraising activities.
In an apparent response, police in France and Spain arrested 14 people this month on suspicion of involvement in ETA's extortion, and froze more than 50 bank accounts.
Zapatero's announcement in Parliament came amidst various trials involving prominent ETA defendants.
Last week, a two-day trial of two ETA suspects, Francisco Javier Garcia Gaztelu, alias Txapote, and his companion Irantxu Gallestegi, for the kidnapping and point blank-shooting death in 1997 of a conservative Basque town councilman critical of ETA, saw the councilman's sister scream "assassins" at the defendants, who were sitting on the other side of bulletproof glass in a Madrid court.
The murder of the councilman, Miguel Angel Blanco, was seen as a turning point, and six million Spaniards marched then against ETA's violence.
Analysts say relentless police pressure helped prompt ETA to declare the cease-fire. In addition to some 490 ETA prisoners in Spanish jails, there are an estimated 140 more in jails in France, ETA's traditional rearguard base of operations.
ETA wants an independent Basque homeland comprising four provinces in northern Spain and a section of southwest France, home to about three million people. But Spain and France and the European Union have voiced opposition over the years to such a homeland.
As part of the nascent peace process in Spain, it was also expected that a leader of the Basque branch of Zapatero's ruling Socialist Party would meet officially, later this summer, with a leader of the outlawed Batasuna party.
Batasuna, before it was outlawed for links to ETA, had extensive local political power in the Basque region, with many elected officials. Analysts say that Batasuna is maneuvering to run candidates in municipal elections next year, but Spain's other political parties insist that Batasuna must first condemn ETA's violence before there could be any move to legalize it again as a party.