Eta declares permanent ceasefire

The Basque separatist group Eta has declared a permanent ceasefire. Eta is blamed for killing more than 800 people in its four-decade fight for independence for the Basque region of northern Spain and south-west France.

In a statement released to Basque media, the group said its objective now was "to start a new democratic process in the Basque country".

Spain's deputy prime minister said it was "good news for all Spaniards", but appealed for "more caution than ever".

"It is our desire and our will that this should be the beginning of the end," Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said.

But the Eta statement was rejected by Spain's Association of Victims of Terrorism as "a new trick by the murderers to achieve their political objectives".

"The only announcement that the AVT is waiting to hear from Eta is that it has disbanded and that its terrorists will be handed over so they can be tried in Spain," it said.

The Eta announcement was made by three masked men, wearing black Basque berets, sitting behind a desk.

"At the end of this process, Basque citizens will be able to have a voice and the power to decide their future," their statement said.

"Ending the conflict, here and now, is possible," it said. "This is the desire and the will of Eta."

It said the ceasefire would begin on Friday 24 March.

First step

The group's activities have been waning, with the number of bombings falling in recent years. The last deadly Eta attack was in May 2003.

Some analysts said its campaign became virtually untenable after the bomb attacks on Madrid in March 2004, blamed on Islamists, caused widespread popular revulsion.

Nearly 200 people died in the series of attacks, on trains in the capital.

In the 1970s Eta killed 100 people or more every year, many of them Spanish police, judges and politicians.

There have been several small bombs in recent weeks but the BBC's correspondent in Madrid, Danny Wood, says Wednesday's announcement could be the first step towards a formal peace process between the group and the Spanish government.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has said a permanent end to hostilities by Eta is a condition for any talks between the organisation and the government.

A spokeswoman for the government said it was "analysing" the statement.

Eta, which is classed as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, declared a full ceasefire in 1998.

This led to a dialogue with the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar. But it broke down, the truce was rescinded a year later and Eta embarked on a renewed bombing campaign.

However, Spanish and French police responded with a wave of arrests which were said to have hit the organisation hard.