ETA disarmament move a 'public relations ploy,' says expert

Gersende RAMBOURG
Jean-Baptiste Redde or " Voltuan", a well-known protester in France for his placards, holds a sign reading: "Historic April 8, the courage of peace" at a rally in Bayonne

The Basque group ETA on Saturday gave France a list of arms caches to finalise a promise to disarm, but what the French Interior minister described as a "major step" is nothing more than a "public relations ploy," an analyst said.

Eight caches of weapons containing 120 firearms and three tonnes of explosives were on the list of sites in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques department handed to the French authorities, according to Michel Tubiana, a human-rights lawyer who is a member of a group acting as intermediary in the handover.

ETA has said the initiative will bring the final curtain down on its decades-long armed campaign for a separate Basque country straddling the Spanish-French border.

But Jean Chalvidant, a French expert who has written several books on ETA, told AFP during an interview he was deeply sceptical about the initiative.

"The operation in (the French Basque city of) Bayonne is a show, a public relations ploy conducted without consultation with the two concerned countries, France and Spain," Chalvidant said.

He added that the operation would serve to "rehabilitate" the separatist group's image.

"The campaign has two goals: the first consists of rehabilitating its disastrous image of a terrorist organisation that killed 829 people, and by extension that of Basque separatism, tarnished by blood and barbarism," the analyst said.

"The second is to move things forward, because no initiative on the issue came from the Madrid government," Chalvidant said.

ETA has sought to negotiate its dissolution in exchange for amnesties or improved prison conditions for roughly 350 of its members held in Spain and France, and for current members living under cover, which antiterrorism experts estimate at about 30 people.

Around 100 are serving sentences of more than 10 years.

However both France and Spain have taken a firm line and refused any concessions.

Chalvidant believes the group will definitively disband only when its jailed members -- spread through 45 prisons in Spain with another 75 members in France -- are regrouped in the Basque region.

Founded in 1959, ETA has fought a long and often-bloody drive for independence and has been blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a string of bombings and shootings dating back to 1968. Thousands more were injured.

In 2011, after a string of arrests among its senior ranks, ETA announced that it had abandoned its armed campaign. But the move did not entail disarmament.

Chalvidant added, however, that "all this circus does not mean that ETA would be disarmed".

"Its few militants have of course kept their own firearms and explosives materials," he said. "And after an order, all could restart tomorrow."

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