Beneath Spain's surface calm, Basque terrorists wage fierce campaign
San Sebastian, Spain
To the casual tourist passing through, there are few visible signs here of the bloody campaign now being waged by the political-military arm of Euzkadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) -- the terrorist organization that still speaks for die-hard Basques who will never accept Spanish rule of any kind.
In the old days, gray uniformed Guardia Civil would have patrolled San Sebastian armed with submachine guns. Today, under King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, police are rarely seen in uniform. Technically, the Basque provinces have ben granted limited autonomy. The distinctive red, green, and white Basque flag can be flown in public, and the police do not even bother tearing down the posters calling for amnesty for terrorists still in prison.
But despite the surface of calm, the war is very real. Since January this year, ETA has assassinated nearly 70 people in terrorist attacks in Spain. Thirty of those killed have been policemen.
Some of the ETA attacks have born a disturbing resemblance to military operations. On Feb 1, ETA ambushed a policy convoy on a heavily forested road near Guipuzcoa, killing six policemen. On July 13, an ETA squad ambushed a police convoy near Orio, killing two and wounding six.
The most chilling recent development in ETA strategy has been a declaration of war on the Spanish tourist industry, which ETA initiated June 25. During a period of a little more than a week, seven bombs went off on Spanish beaches. Another three bombs were dismantled in time by police. most of the bombs caused little damage. But one that was used to booby-trap a car badly wounded two French vacationers. The fact that the car had been picked as a target even though it clearly had French license plates caused a panic among French tourists who had been thinking of spending their holidays in Spain.
Spanish tourist officials have reported that tourism, which had already dropped 10 percent because of Spain's worsening economy, has dropped another 20 to 30 percent because of fears over what ETA would do. After the first week or so, the bombings ended. Spanish authorities maintain that ETA either ran out of explosives momentarily, or was finding it too difficult to get through extra police guards that had been placed on the beches. The damage to tourism had already been done.
Throughout all of this bombing, it has become less and less clear what ETA is really after. In theory, at least, ETA members say they want amnesty for terrorists still in prison, and for the regular Spanish police to be withdrawn from the Basque provinces. They also want Navarra Province, which has the mostly Basque city of Pamplona, to be included in the Basque autonomous region.
In reality, the motives of many of the terrorists may be more basic. ETA is currently levying increasingly heavy taxes on many of the wealthier businessmen in the Basque region who are terrified on being assassinated.
As political revolutionaries, no one questions ETA'S motives when it robs a bank or demands ransom. Terrorism is becoming big business, and the terrorists are living better and better. In a region where jobs are hard to find, the romance of revolution becomes more and more attractive. Certainly many of the terrorists realize that if their dispute with the Spanish government were ever to resolve itself, their personal status would diminish dramatically.
Taken from that perspective, there is little that Prime Minister Suarez can do except try to isolate the terrorists as much as possible and then eliminate them one by one. Cornering the terrorists is difficult, though, because of the French border. ETA's command structure and training facilities are located in a geographic triangle in the French Basque region that stretches from St. Jean de Luz to Bayonne and Biarritz. Lately, ETA has been training recruits in markmanship along isolated French beaches, where the sound of the ocean drowns out the rifle fire.
There has, in fact, been a growing concern lately that the Spanish Basque independence movement may be triggering similar feelings on the part of the French Basques.
The French Basque provinces count about 100,000 Basques, of whom only about 60,000 speak the Basque language. Although proud of being Basque, the Basques in France have until now been perfectly content to be part of France. But in the last few months there has been noticeable increase in incidents.
The French are well aware that arousing French Basques could pose serious problems. Last August, when police tried to forbid a football game between San Sebastian and Nantes, some 1,200 demonstrators spent six hours rampaging through the city. When a demonstration was called a month later, at Biarritz, the French brought in 150 paratroopers to patrol the city.
That is exactly the kind of show of force the Spanish have been trying to avoid. It is one reason that when walking though San Sebastian today, it looks as though nothing is going on. That is until one notes the scribbled note on the window of the luggage room at the train station, which says, "No bags taken in until further notice. Danger of bombs."