Madrid: The Basque separatist group ETA said on Thursday it was ending four decades of armed struggle and called for talks with the Spanish and French authorities on ending Europe`s last major guerrilla conflict.
"ETA has decided the definitive cessation of its armed activity," the group said in a statement through Basque-language newspaper Gara and an online video.
"ETA calls upon the Spanish and French governments to open a process of direct dialogue with the aim of addressing the resolution of the conflict," it added.
Three masked ETA members sat behind a table to read the statement, raising their fists in the air at the end of the video.
Thursday`s declaration is a significant shift for ETA, whose goal was to carve out an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southern France, and takes the group far beyond the permanent ceasefire it announced in January.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero dismissed that gesture as meaningless unless the group turned in its arms.
The nationalist group has been severely weakened in recent years by the arrests of hundreds of its members and seizures of its weapons. It has also come under pressure from its own political arm and former members, now in prison, to disband.
The three ETA members in the video did not say whether the guerrilla force would turn in its weapons, which Zapatero has said was a pre-condition for any negotiations with ETA.
The Spanish government welcomed Thursday`s announcement but it was not clear whether Madrid would now engage in talks with ETA, which was formed more than 50 years ago and began violent actions some 40 years ago.
"This has been possible thanks to the mettle and strength of Spanish society, guided by the rule of law, which triumphs today as the only possible way for people to coexist," said Zapatero.
"Our democracy will be one without terrorism, but not one without memory."
The Socialist government is deeply unpopular and expected to lose a general election on November 20 due to voter anger over a struggling economy and a sky-high unemployment.
Even if his government can claim victory in the decades-long effort to bring an end to ETA, analysts have said it will be difficult for the Socialists to make any political gains because voters are more concerned about jobs.
"We feel this is an important step, but the Spanish people will only completely rest at ease when ETA is irreversibly dismantled," said Mariano Rajoy, leader of the centre-right People`s Party, which polls show will win the November election.
More than 800 victims
ETA was formed in the late 1950s during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who suppressed the Basque language and culture. Over the years the group killed 829 people, according to the Spanish government, and the death toll in the conflict goes higher when it includes death squad killings of ETA members and bystanders.
In recent years there have been signs that peace was gradually coming to Basque country. Politicians tied to ETA and banned from running for office, grew weary of the conflict and began to believe they could fight for Basque autonomy through politics rather than violence.
The successful government crackdown on Basque members reduced the state of fear in the region. Politicians and intellectuals no longer look routinely under their cars for bombs and have given up on bodyguards.
Many Basques also say they feel freer to speak about politics.
The ETA announcement follows a conference in the Basque country on Monday when international leaders and ex-politicians appealed to ETA to end its struggle.
"I believe that their statement today meets that requirement and I would urge the governments of Spain and France to welcome it and agree to talks exclusively to deal with the consequences of the conflict," said Gerry Adams, the president of Irish nationalist group Sinn Fein, a member of an international group of leaders working for peace in the Basque country.
David Bach, a political analyst at the IE business school in Madrid said it was not clear whether the government would engage directly with ETA, since Zapatero was careful to signal respect for the group`s victims.
But it may dialogue with politicians close to the armed group.
"What gives this particular announcement credibility is that it responds verbatim to the conclusions of Monday`s peace conference," Bach said.