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Killings Put Spaniards on Edge

November 6, 2000

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ The tree-lined Villa de Paris plaza is a peaceful little oasis in hectic Madrid, its playground swings and slides attracting dozens of children and their parents each day.

But with the Supreme Court at one end, the National Court at the other, and the ruling Popular Party’s headquarters just around the corner, some parents feel like sitting ducks for Basque separatist gunmen and bombers.

In the capital of a modern European democracy, a wave of political violence is making Madrilenos nervous about where they go, what they do, even about giving their full names to a reporter for fear of reprisals.

``When I heard about the bomb Monday I left here in a hurry,″ said Maribel, 44, who regularly takes her kids to the square. ``Sometimes you wonder if it’s a good idea to come here, but then you realize they can get you anywhere, on a bus, in a plaza, or in a shopping mall.″

She spoke two days after a car bomb in a residential area of Madrid killed a judge, his driver, and a bodyguard, and injured more than 60 others.

The bomb shattered windows three blocks away, punched holes in cars, set fire to garbage bins and a bus, knocked tiles off bathroom walls.

Three days later, last Thursday, a car bomb in central Barcelona injured two people.

Both bombings were attributed to ETA, an armed Basque separatist group.

The state Center for Sociological Investigation said Thursday its latest studies indicate that terrorism has taken the lead over the 14 percent unemployment rate as Spaniards’ chief worry.

The Basque region is some 200 miles north of Madrid but ETA has shown its shooting range can cover the entire country of 39 million people.

The violence has killed 19 people this year, including six in October. The Madrid bomb was the deadliest attributed to ETA since it ended a 14-month, unilateral cease-fire last December.

ETA has claimed some 800 killings since it began in 1968 to seek independence for a region about the size of New Hampshire, straddling the border of Spain and France.

Basques are an ancient people who speak a language with no known European roots. They have always maintained a separate identity within Spain and France. Nowadays, people in the Basque region _ about half of them immigrants from other parts of Spain _ are fairly evenly divided about the independence cause, but only 12 percent openly sympathize with ETA.

ETA, whose name stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom, maintains that the roughly 1 million Basques on the Spanish side and the 200,000 in France have a right to self-determination. More immediately, they demand that their 435 jailed members should be in prisons closer to home rather than dispersed across the peninsula.

With Northern Ireland clinging to a tenuous cease-fire, the Basque conflict is the only major one still troubling western Europe, and the Spanish public is losing patience.

When tens of thousands of Spaniards marched through Madrid to protest the Oct. 30 car bombing, the loudest chant was to lock up ETA assassins for life.

The party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who survived a 1995 bomb attempt on his life, has responded by toughening sentences for terrorist offenses.

A single round of talks during the recent cease-fire proved fruitless with neither side willing to discuss the other’s demands. ETA pushed for self-determination while the government wanted only to talk disarmament.

Aznar’s argument that the three-province Basque region has more autonomy than any other region in Europe does not impress pro-independence supporters. They maintain that Madrid has no right to limit Basques’ independence.

Meanwhile, politicians and judges are openly threatened by ETA supporters and members. A week ago, Francisco ‘Pakito’ Mugika Garmendia, a former ETA leader, was convicted of killing an attorney in the 1980s. During his trial he warned judges and prosecutors they were all on ETA’s list.

In the Basque region itself, scene of seven killings this year, shops and businesses owned by opponents of independence are frequently targeted by rampaging gangs of hooded youths.

One woman braving the storm is Maria San Gil, 35, head of Aznar’s Popular Party in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa. San Gil was dining with regional party chief Gregorio Ordonez when he was shot dead by ETA in 1995. Now she too is threatened, by taunts at demonstrations and posters of her face in bull’s-eye target rings.

Back in Madrid, the feeling of helplessness was captured by a cartoon last week in the daily El Mundo showing peace protesters marching through a gunman’s head _ in one ear and out the other.

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