AFTER more than 40 years of armed struggle in which it killed more than 800 people, the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – better known by its acronym Eta – has declared itself a “weapons-free” organisation.

In a letter to the BBC it said its entire arsenal had been given to civil society groups and that mediators would complete the disarmament today.

“After giving up all its weaponry (arms and explosives) to Basque civil society representatives, it is now a disarmed organisation,” Eta said in the letter.

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It bore yesterday’s date and was signed with Eta’s seal, and it is the group’s first public communique in more than five years, since it gave up the violence it waged to achieve an independent Basque state in southern France and northern Spain.

A group of activists self-appointed as “peace artisans” had already announced a disarmament strategy in south-western France, but Eta had not directly confirmed it.

Two of the mediators, speaking anonymously, said they considered that Eta’s statement is legitimate.

Spain and France consider the group to have been defeated and therefore refuse to engage in the disarmament process.

In the letter, Eta accuses both governments of being “stubborn” and persisting in a “winners and losers scheme”.

It also warns that the disarmament could still be derailed.

“We want to warn that still the process can be attacked by the enemies of peace,” Eta said, calling today “disarmament day”.

“The only real guarantee to succeed are the thousands of people gathering tomorrow in Bayonne supporting the disarmament,” it added, referring to the French town where thousands of pro-Basque independence supporters are expected to take part in a demonstration to cap the disarmament.

WHAT RESPONSE HAS THERE BEEN?
AS you might expect, Spain has said it will not offer anything in return for the disarmament and urged the militants to disband and help police clear unsolved crimes.

It said Eta does not need to be applauded for the move because the hard work of police and judges had already defeated the group, leading to a ceasefire in 2011.

The conservative government’s cabinet spokesman, Inigo Mendez de Vigo, said that Eta members should help its victims’ relatives by cooperating with hundreds of unresolved cases.

For their part, experts view the disarmament as symbolic, saying Eta’s arsenal had already been diminished, with much of it obsolete.

The Basque regional parliament has also called for a disarmament to be “unilateral, complete, definitive and verified”.

Spanish daily El Pais said the key moment will be when the International Verification Commission notifies France about the locations of Eta arms caches. The Basque regional government - which has a large degree of autonomy - said the locations will remain secret.

Basque government sources quoted by the newspaper said they wanted Eta to formally dissolve itself, rather than wait for it to fall apart gradually, arguing that by formally disbanding, it would be easier to persuade Spanish authorities to transfer jailed Eta militants to prisons closer to their Basque families.

WHY WAS ETA FORMED?
THERE are many separatist groups across Spain and Eta is one of the most notorious. It was an offshoot of the Basque Nationalist Party formed in 1959 – under the regime of dictator General Francisco Franco – by a breakaway group who had grown angry at the party’s rejection of an armed struggle.

Eta’s first known killing was in 1968, when Meliton Manzanas, a secret police chief, was shot dead in the city of San Sebastian.

In 1973, the group assassinated Franco’s chosen successor Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, which had profound implications as the government cracked down on Eta’s activity, and executed five terrorists in 1975, despite international protests.

Despite continuing its killings over the decades since, Eta had mostly fallen off the radar until 2011, when its ceasefire was announced.

WHAT NOW?
WE wait and see. Eta prisoners in some places are afforded a status approaching martyrdom and they can be given a hero’s welcome then they are eventually freed.

There have been calls for the authorities to release the prisoners, or at least allow them to complete their sentences in Basque jails.

However, Madrid refuses to consider a change in policy, saying that those behind bars are murderers and will be treated as such.