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1ST LEAD: Basque region to hold referendum on independence in 2008

By dpa news     Sep 28, 2007 in Politics
Spain's northern Basque region Friday announced that it would hold a referendum on its future, understood to include the option of independence, on October 25, 2008.
Regional Prime Minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe made the announcement during a parliamentary debate.
Ibarretxe believes the referendum would help to solve the conflict opposing Spain to the armed Basque separatist group ETA, but Spanish mainstream parties immediately condemned his plan.
Conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy described it as "illegal" and as "blackmail," while Basque Socialist representative Jose Antonio Pastor said it was "a crazy dream."
Ibarretxe, who had earlier proposed a "free association" between Spain and the Basque region, said he would first seek a pact with the Spanish government. The contents of the pact would be submitted to a binding regional referendum.
If no acceptable pact was reached, a non-binding referendum will be held.
Ibarretxe has been making plans for a referendum since 2000. The Spanish government says the Basque authorities do not have the right to hold referendums and that such a vote would have no practical significance.
In 2005, the Spanish parliament rejected the so-called Ibarretxe Plan, which included the referendum.
Ibarretxe, however, said Friday that the vote would have "full political validity."
The date of the referendum, October 25, coincides with the anniversary of the Gernika statute, which granted the Basque region a wide measure of autonomy in 1979.
During the 1939-75 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the region had suffered under a cultural repression, with the Basques often not even allowed to speak their language in public.
The repression sparked the birth of ETA, which is blamed for more than 800 deaths, and whose violence is opposed by Ibarretxe's moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government failed in an attempt to launch a peace process with ETA in 2006.
Ibarretxe believes an open discussion about the independence question would help to solve the problem of ETA, which the European Union and the United States regard as a terrorist organization.
Spain, however, fears the rise of separatist currents not only in the Basque region, but also in nearby Catalonia.
About a half of the Basque region's 2.1 million residents support Basque nationalist parties like the PNV. The other half backs mainstream Spanish parties such as the Socialists and the conservatives. dpa st pb