MADRID, Spain (AP) _ A political columnist for a leading Spanish daily was shot dead in the northern Basque region Sunday, a slaying officials immediately linked to a separatist group.

Jose Luis Lopez de La Calle, a columnist for the El Mundo daily in the Basque region, was hit by several bullets in the head as he was leaving his home in the town of Andoain on Sunday morning, the Interior Ministry in Bilbao said. There were no immediate arrests.

If confirmed, it would be the separatist group ETA's first slaying of a journalist and its fourth killing since the group ended a 14-month cease-fire in December.

``They killed him because he stood for democracy and he was a free man,'' said Rosa Diez, a leading opposition Socialist party member. ``They want to murder anything that stands for democracy and liberty.''

Lopez, 60, was married and had two children. He had been a member of the Communist Party and was jailed during late Gen. Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship. In recent years, he had been a member of a Basque pacifist forum.

He had received several threats from ETA in the past and had his house attacked with homemade bombs several weeks ago.

Security force members and politicians top the list of the nearly 800 killings since the ETA began its violent campaign for independence of the three-province Basque country in 1968.

ETA has claimed responsibility for two car bombings this year which killed three people. It is also blamed for another car bomb that injured seven people and for several failed package bomb attacks against journalists.

``ETA wants to provoke fear in the society and they don't want journalists to tell the truth,'' said Casimiro Garcia Abadillo, a director at El Mundo. ``Journalists are an easy target. They don't have bodyguards or protection, and they don't take the same precautions as a politician or a Civil Guard.''