BILBAO, Spain -- In a politically risky move aimed at ending Europe's last armed conflict, Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced yesterday that he will open peace talks with ETA, the outlawed Basque guerrilla organization.
The talks follow ETA's declaration in March of a "permanent" cease-fire in the group's four-decade fight for independence. Together, the two steps represent what many here believe to be the best chance in years for lasting peace.
Zapatero immediately faced angry criticism from victims' organizations and Spain's main opposition party.
"The process is going to be long, hard and difficult," the prime minister cautioned as he announced the talks in Madrid. He offered few details but promised that his government would not make major political concessions to ETA, which many Spaniards consider a terrorist group.
The talks are expected to focus on government demands that ETA fighters disarm and Basque calls for the group's prisoners to be moved to jails closer to their hometowns. Although the Basque separatists also want a voice in determining the future of their region, Zapatero seemed to rule that out.
The dialogue will likely take place in closed meetings in a European country other than Spain. Zapatero said political parties could expect a progress report in late September.
More than 2 million Basques live in a small wedge of northern Spain near the border with France, sharing a common ethnic background, customs and language.
Since the waning years of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, which ended with his death in 1975, ETA has been fighting for an independent Basque country in its traditional homeland in northern Spain and southern France.
More than 800 people have been killed in ETA attacks, including police officers, politicians and journalists, and thousands more injured. The violence often reached Madrid and other parts of Spain.