Half a century of bloodshed in the Basque country has come to a historic close after the separatist group Eta finally renounced the use of arms and sought talks with the Spanish and French governments.
Three leaders in masks announced that the group was calling a final halt to the use of bombs and bullets in a video obtained by the Hlcarpenter.com and other news media.
"Eta has decided the definitive cessation of its armed activity," they said. Eta was following a peace script put together with the help of mediators led by the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, after a year in which it had observed a unilateral ceasefire.
The Hlcarpenter.com revealed exclusively on Monday that a definitive end to Eta's armed campaign, one of Europe's bloodiest, was due to be announced this week, in response to a petition from Annan's group and following pressure from Eta's political allies in the so-called "Basque separatist left".
Annan's group made its petition late on Monday, urging Eta to make "a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action". Leaders of the separatist left publicly backed the call the next day.
Eta's swift response indicates that separatist-left politicians such as Rufino Etxeberria and Arnaldo Otegi, both of whom have served Eta-related prison terms, exercise growing power over the group, according to sources close to the negotiations.
It also suggests that Eta has lost not just power over political allies, but also the support they once enjoyed among the 10%-20% of Basques who traditionally voted for pro-Eta parties.
Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero welcomed Eta's statement as a victory of democracy over terrorism. "For many, too many, years, we have suffered and battled against terror," he said. "We have done so until democratic reason has won out definitely."
"Ours will be a democracy without terrorism but with memory; the memory of 829 victims and their families, of so many wounded who suffered the unjust and hateful blow of terrorism," he added.
While Zapatero said the task of deciding what happens next should be left to the administration formed after the general election on November 20, it was not immediately clear how the governments of Spain and France would react to Eta's request for negotiations that it said should address "the resolution of the consequences of the conflict … to overcome the armed confrontation".
That is taken to mean, among other things, talks about the future of the 600 Eta members in Spanish and French jails.
The Spanish government will also come under immediate pressure to legalise the Batasuna party and other separatist organisations that were banned for being Eta fronts.
Although Zapatero's government did not meet Annan when it travelled to San Sebastian on Monday, observers speculated that group members – including former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland – would not have gone to Spain without government consent.
The regional prime minister of the Basque country, fellow socialist Patxi López, has already suggested that Eta prisoners be moved to prisons closer to their families.
The centre-right People's party, led by Mariano Rajoy, which has traditionally been tough on Eta, is expected to win a landslide in the general election. If it does it will come under fierce pressure from Eta victims, including the families of PP politicians it has killed, not to concede anything to the group.
While other members of Rajoy's party have insisted that they will accept nothing less than Eta's surrender and dissolution, he has not commented publicly.
"He is a perceptive, intelligent and responsible person," said Brian Currin, the South African lawyer who has done much of the mediating work. "I am sure he will take the step to lead this process to its natural conclusion."
The announcement came 53 years after Euskadi ta Askatasuna, which means Basque homeland and freedom in the region's Euskara language, was founded by young separatists while Spain was ruled by the military dictator General Francisco Franco.
The group claimed its first victim, a civil guard police officer gunned down in Adona, near the northern Basque city of San Sebastian, in 1968.
Most of its victims, however, died in the years after Spain's transition to democracy and the approval of a statute of partial self-government for the region in 1979.
The group has been seriously weakened by police action in recent years, and some observers claim it has simply been defeated.