Basque rebels declare cease-fire

Weakened and on the run, the Basque separatist group ETA said Sunday that it was declaring a cease-fire in its armed campaign against the Spanish government and that it was willing to try to achieve its aims through democratic means.

It was the latest truce to be offered by the rebels, whose suspected leader was arrested in February. Officials reacted with skepticism and caution to the move, mindful that the militants had declared such cease-fires in the past and then abruptly broken them.

The new announcement came in a video sent to the BBC and to a Basque-language newspaper. In the video, three hooded guerrillas sit at a table with the ETA banner on the wall behind them, while a woman’s voice makes a statement in the Basque language.

ETA “took the decision some months ago not to conduct offensive armed actions,” the statement said, according to a Spanish translation by the newspaper Gara.

The statement indicated that the group was willing to negotiate terms with Madrid on how to “launch the democratic process.” But the group did not pledge to give up arms and renounce violence permanently, as the Spanish government has demanded.

“It’s absolutely insufficient because it does not take into account what the vast majority of Basque society demands and requires from ETA, which is that it definitively abandon terrorist activity,” Rodolfo Ares, the interior minister in the Basque regional government, told reporters.

More than 800 people have been killed during ETA’s decades-long battle to carve out an independent Basque homeland in what is currently northern Spain and southern France. ETA is the Basque-language acronym for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning Basque Homeland and Freedom.

The guerrillas gave no explanation for why they had decided to stop attacks. But ETA has been weakened severely in recent months by internal divisions, arrests of suspected members and dwindling support for its armed campaign.

In February, the group’s suspected leader was arrested in France, the latest in a string of arrests of those believed to be senior ETA members.

The most recent cease-fire was declared in 2006 and was supposedly permanent; talks were opened between ETA and Madrid.

But the negotiations made little progress, and the group set off a bomb at Madrid’s airport several months later, killing two people and prompting the Spanish government to say it would no longer talk to the group.

The most recent attack was a car bomb that killed two police officers on the island of Majorca in July of last year.