End of ETA truce deals blow to Spanish PM

MADRID Wed Jun 6, 2007 12:46pm BST

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero makes a statement at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid June 5, 2007. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero makes a statement at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid June 5, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Perez

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MADRID (Reuters) - The photos said it all. Eyes downcast, his face puffy, Spain's prime minister looked shattered by news that Basque rebels ETA were ending their truce, a move that dooms a key policy with elections looming next year.

Even the pro-government newspaper El Pais printed an unflattering close-up of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on its front page on Wednesday, showing him grimly reading his response to the previous day's announcement by ETA.

ETA's decision, a surprise to few following their December bomb attack at Madrid airport that killed two people, dealt a death blow to Zapatero's attempts to negotiate an end to four decades of armed struggle for the Basque Country's independence.

With general elections due by next March, Zapatero was already having to cope with early signs that Spain's decade-long economic boom may be faltering and disappointing results in May's regional elections.

The Socialist government now faces a rough if not impossible ride to win another term in office, analysts believe.

"I think he's clearly under strain," said Charles Powell, a professor at Madrid's San Pablo-CEU University, who saw the elections which must be held by March as "wide open".

"The main concern now in government circles, as far as I know, is that for example if the government tried to bring the elections forward, ETA would probably be sorely attempted to intervene in the election campaign in some way," Powell said.

Spain's last election was decided by a bomb, when Islamist attacks on Madrid trains triggered a surprise defeat for the then governing conservative Popular Party in 2004.

Zapatero's decision last June to start peace talks with ETA after their truce in March that year was a major political gamble that has now blown up in his face.

"If it had worked, he would have received enormous popular support, as we Spaniards are very tired of ETA and terrorism, but it has turned out so very very badly that I think it's damaged him," said Juan Aviles, contemporary history professor at the UNED Open University.

But the end of the truce does have one positive effect for the government, because it allows it to get tough on ETA, weakening the Popular Party's most profitable line of attack against the government.

The Popular Party's strong performance in Madrid in last May's vote was partly due to support for its demands for unconditional surrender by ETA, which has killed more than 800 people, analysts believe.

Signs of a new harder line came late on Tuesday when the government said it had reversed an earlier decision to allow house arrest for Inaki de Juana Chaos, a former ETA commander in the 1980s, and ruled he should return to jail.

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