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Peacemakers mark end of violent Basque separatist group ETA

South African lawyer Brian Currin, second row right, raises his arm, with Raymond Kendall, center behind, Alberto Spectorovsky, second right behind, Agus Hernan, right, Bayonne mayor Jean-René Etchegaray, center, and other officials and pose during an international conference that will mark the permanent end of the ETA, Friday, May 4, 2018 in Cambo-les-Bains, southwestern France. The Basque separatist group ETA publicly declared its dissolution, bringing an end to a campaign against Spain that saw more than 850 people killed over more than four decades of bombings and shootings. (Bob Edme / Associated Press)
By Bob Edme Associated Press

CAMBO-LES-BAINS, France – International mediators hailed the disbanding of Basque separatist group ETA as a turning point for Europe after decades of bombings and shootings – but Spain’s prime minister remained unforgiving of a group that killed 850 people in its drive for a Basque homeland.

The Spanish and French governments refused to take part in a peace conference Friday in Basque country in southern France celebrating ETA’s formal dissolution.

Victims’ groups dismissed ETA’s move as propaganda, and the Spanish government said it would continue to prosecute anyone with any links to past violence.

Mediators working to resolve the Basque conflict urged Spain on Friday to be more conciliatory as families and communities try to turn the page on the violence. The negotiators warned that any party seeking “total victory” could end up re-igniting the conflict.

“Deep wounds remain. Families and communities are still divided,” said a statement read out in the town of Cambo-les-Bains, in Basque, Spanish, French and English.

“Work remains to be done on all sides … Peace is not a zero-sum game but a matter of political consent where both sides agree to pursue their aims peacefully and democratically,” they said.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, in a televised address about ETA’s dissolution, repeated his government’s hard-line stance, saying the separatist group’s efforts were “a resounding failure” and that none of its crimes would be forgiven.

ETA “can announce its dissolution, but its crimes won’t go away, nor will the efforts of our legal system to pursue them and punish them come to an end,” said Rajoy.

In an open letter Thursday to the Basque people, ETA said it has “completely dismantled all of its structures” and “will no longer express political positions, promote initiatives or interact with other stakeholders.”

ETA, which stands for “Basque Homeland and Freedom,” was born in 1958. It carried out bombings, shootings and kidnappings as it pursued the creation of a homeland in northern Spain and southern France.

The conflict tarnished Spain’s return to democracy after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Members of the country’s security apparatus were jailed for launching a “dirty war” on terror during the 1980s with clandestine death squads, and at least 60 separatists were killed.

Mediators expressed regret that the Spanish government didn’t participate in dialogue with ETA as it prepared to disband, and praised Basque civilians who persuaded militants to disarm.

The mediators – including British diplomat Jonathan Powell, who took part in Northern Ireland peace talks, and former International Monetary Fund chief Michel Camdessus – said it was important to celebrate “the end of the last armed group on the continent.”

“We hope it will give hope to all those facing apparently insoluble conflicts elsewhere in the world,” they said.