After more than three decades of sporadic bombings and assassinations by the separatist group known as ETA, many people here in Spain's prosperous Basque region are daring to speak of a possibility that long seemed remote: an end to one of Europe's oldest conflicts.
ETA victims, academics, local leaders, journalists, Spanish government officials and others say that the underground group, which demands a separate country for Spain's 800,000 Basque people, has been severely weakened in recent months by the arrests of scores of members and many top leaders in Spain and in France. The Basques have lived in the swath of border territory on both sides of the Pyrenees mountains for thousands of years.
Another major arrest was reported Tuesday: Police in southwestern France seized Gorka Palacio Alday, who Spanish authorities say is the group's military commander.
In addition, ETA's financial assets abroad have been squeezed by increased international cooperation. And whatever public sympathy ETA enjoyed has declined in a wave of revulsion against its killings of popular politicians and journalists.
"There's a big change developing in the Basque Country in Spain," said the Rev. Txema Auzmendi, a Basque Jesuit priest who runs a local radio station, Herri Irratia, or Radio Popular. "It looks like ETA will call it quits."
The most concrete evidence is a fall in the number of attacks and killings by ETA, the Basque-language initials for Basque Homeland and Liberty. In 2000, when ETA announced the "reactivation of armed struggle" following a 14-month cease-fire, its operatives launched 44 bombings and assassinations, in which 23 people were killed, government figures show. In 2001, it carried out 43 attacks, killing 15. But in 2002, the number of attacks dropped to 20, with five deaths, and so far this year there have been 17 strikes attributed to ETA, in which three people were killed.
ETA's rebellion, which has claimed more than 800 lives, began in the early 1960s during the repressive 40-year Spanish dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. It has continued to bedevil the democratic governments that followed Franco's death in 1976. Spain has granted the country's Basques broad autonomy but has drawn the line at independence.
Some of the decline in attacks has been attributed to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's hard-line policy toward ETA: no negotiations, no concessions and unrelenting police pressure. Aznar, who escaped unhurt from an ETA bombing of his car in 1995, has been faulted by many in the Basque region for failing to have political dialogue with moderate Basque nationalists who run the regional government and reject violence.
Yet many critics concede that his tough approach has succeeded in keeping the group on the defensive. "Little by little, it's the end of ETA," said Gorka Landaburu, an editor at the magazine Cambio 16 and a frequent radio commentator. "ETA is arriving at the end of the road."
Landaburu is something of an expert, having become a victim of the ETA. In May 2001, he opened a letter bomb that exploded. He lost his left eye, his right thumb and some of his fingertips. He was likely saved only because he opened the package while standing up at his desk; a high-backed office chair between him and the bomb absorbed much of the blast.
While no fan of the separatists, Landaburu is also critical of Aznar's approach. "Mr. Aznar is not doing anything to try to find a way for dialogue," Landaburu said. "He thinks he can end ETA with the force of justice, the police and the French crackdown. It's the end of ETA, thanks to the pressure, thanks to the international cooperation. But there is still a need for negotiations."
The weakening of ETA has also been traced to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, which triggered the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. The State Department agreed with Aznar's request to label ETA a terrorist organization. The European Union followed suit, which led to a freezing of the group's assets and closer coordination between governments in tracking a list of ETA suspects. A series of key arrests followed in Spain and, notably, in France, which ETA has long used as its base for operations.
Spanish officials had long contended that French police had been slow to act, because almost no attacks occurred on French soil. But the French anti-terrorism police have put severe pressure on ETA members in France in the past year and a half -- prompted, many said, by the EU's labeling of ETA as a terrorist group and the shift in France, in May 2002, to a center-right government that campaigned against rising insecurity.
In November 2002, Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly appointed French interior minister, visited Madrid and met in the Spanish Senate with the families of ETA victims. Sarkozy was stunned to find hundreds of people -- including children who had lost parents, and wives of slain Spanish policemen -- crammed into the chamber, an aide said. Since his return, the French crackdown has intensified.
Last August, a Spanish judge ordered a ban on the radical Basque party Batasuna, accused by the Spanish government of being the legal, political arm of ETA. Batasuna's party offices and "people's taverns," which Spanish officials consider to be recruiting grounds for ETA, were closed. At the time, many feared that banning Batasuna would cause a political backlash in the region, but it never materialized.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, such steps would likely have drawn widespread international criticism. But in the context of the war on terrorism, Spain's actions evoked barely a note of international concern.
"No one is saying anything," said Martxelo Otamendi, chief editor of Egunkaria, a Basque-language newspaper that was closed by the government in February. Meanwhile, he said, Aznar "is closing newspapers and torturing suspects." Otamendi was detained for five days by Spain's elite Civil Guard after being accused of being an ETA member; he said he was not, but has interviewed ETA leaders. He said that during his detention, he was tortured and was forced to stand and squat naked with his hands raised for long periods.
Otamendi was freed after paying a $30,000 bond, but his bank accounts were frozen and his passport was seized. He has filed a complaint in court alleging he was tortured by the anti-terrorism police.
Analysts said that ETA has been further knocked off balance as the Irish Republican Army, long considered the Basque group's soul mate, has observed a cease-fire that has enabled a peace process to proceed in Northern Ireland. Last year, the IRA apologized for killing civilians; it has also disposed of part of its arsenal.
"The IRA has been their big brother in terms of ideology," said Auzmendi, the Jesuit priest. Now ETA members "are really isolated."
Public fatigue with the conflict has also helped weaken the group, many analysts here said. "You can't kill people just because they disagree with you," said Andolin Eguzkitza, a professor of Basque culture in the Basque city of Bilbao. "People of goodwill are getting fed up." He added, "Today, many people who have been defending the work of ETA would say they have to stop."
Spanish government and security officials in Madrid and Paris agreed that ETA has been severely weakened, although they did not predict the group's imminent demise.
"ETA is in a weak situation," said Ignacio Astarloa, Spain's deputy interior minister for security. "ETA is dismantled, its ability to act is significantly reduced and the level of information the French and Spanish police forces has received is as never before."
But "as long as ETA exists, it can kill at any time," Astarloa said. "The end of ETA will come about from police action, without a doubt. I'm very clear now that ETA has an end."
Astarloa said the Sept. 11 attacks "inarguably changed things, because it lays before a lot of people the horror that terrorism really is."
In Paris, a senior French security official confirmed that French actions have been stepped up in the past two years, saying, "We've caught a lot of big fish." He added: "The Spanish believe this could be the end of ETA. We hope this is not wishful thinking."
With ETA seemingly weakened, many here say they believe now is the time for a new political deal between the Spanish government and the autonomous Basque region.
The president of the regional government, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, whose Basque Nationalist Party controls the regional legislature, is proposing a new power-sharing deal that would further increase this region's autonomy in such areas as education and health and give the Basques a seat at European Union meetings on matters that concern the Basque region.
Aznar and his supporters in Madrid condemn the plan as an unconstitutional and surreptitious attempt to achieve independence. "It's a back door to sovereignty," said Gustavo de Aristegui, a member of the Spanish parliament and the majority leader on foreign policy. "They can't get it by voting, so they try to snatch it."
But in the sleepy Basque capital of Vitoria -- a town of broad avenues and high-rise buildings -- Ibarretxe defended his plan as a way out of the impasse and the violence. "My plan is not an independence plan," Ibarretxe said in an interview. "My plan is not a plan to break up Spain, but a plan to coexist with Spain."
Ibarretxe said he condemns "totally and absolutely" the violence. "I know there are people who try to connect Basque nationalism to ETA violence, but that's very unfair," he said. "We have never defended our ideas with guns and we will never defend our ideas with guns."
Despite his protests, many people in Spain accuse Ibarretxe of implicitly siding with ETA gunmen to advance an independence agenda -- for example, by allowing members of the banned Batasuna party to continue to operate openly in the Basque Country, in defiance of Spain's Supreme Court.
Ibarretxe's autonomy plan calls for the Basque government to take full control of natural resources, infrastructure and administration of the state pension and welfare programs in the Basque territory. "We think if we manage it from here, we will do a better job than if it is managed from Madrid," he said.
What Spanish officials most oppose is an element of Ibarretxe's plan in which the Basques would send their own representatives to international bodies to protect Basque interests on such issues as fishing rights or the environment. Spanish representatives say that would amount to allowing the Basques to have a separate foreign policy, a step toward independence. Aznar's government has gone to court to have the plan declared illegal, and is threatening to have Ibarretxe jailed -- and the Basque government dissolved -- if he holds a local referendum on the proposals.
"The Spanish government has the obligation to maintain the constitution firmly," said Juan Pablo Fusi, a history professor at Madrid University. "Where I would criticize the government is that in the last two or three years, it has maintained complete political confrontation and absolutely no dialogue with the Basque government, even if the weight of the break lies with the Basque government."
Special correspondents Pamela Rolfe in Madrid and Robert Scarcia in Spain's Basque region contributed to this report.