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In Spain, Basques step up campaign of terror

This being the summer of terrorism, the Basque ETA obviously didn't want to be left out and so has set off a series of bombs in southern Spain designed to drive away the tourists.

They have so far killed nobody, but they are no joke. One of the three that went off last Saturday, while the world was reeling from the explosion of TWA Flight 800, injured 35 people, most of them British waiting at the airport in Reus to fly home.

Add to those seven other bombs in July, and you can see that the ETA (for Basque Homeland and Freedom) has not gone on vacation, is trying to frighten those who have and thus to strike at the tourism that accounts for 10 percent of Spain's national income.

The ETA has tried this before. In 1991 and 1992, it put bombs on the railway tracks to try to derail trains. In 1993, the targets were the Atlantic beaches of Spain's Basque country itself.

Since then, they have been the Mediterranean beaches of the Costa del Sol and Costa Dorada. In almost every case, the ETA warned the police in time to get civilians safely out of the way. The exception was at the Reus airport last Saturday, but so far none of the ETA campaigns have had much effect on tourism.

The Basques emerged from the mists of history speaking a language with apparently little relation to any other and that practically no one else can understand. Most of them now inhabit three northern provinces of Spain, with a smaller spillover into France.

Since 1968 when the ETA began its campaign of seeking independence through violence, some 750 people have been killed in a pitiless war, which Spain has several times thought it was close to winning _ only to be disabused by another assassination or bomb attack.

Rafael Vera, who for years was the second man in the Interior Ministry, told me earlier this year that probably only three or four ETA commando groups were left, each with three or four people. No more than 150 people, he thought, were involved altogether in backing them up.

But neither did he think that ETA terrorism could be completely stamped out by force. Ironically, he is now having to defend himself against charges of having approved a dirty war against the terrorists in the mid-1980s.

ETA is often compared with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Both have called recent cease-fires. But the IRA's lasted 17 months, ETA's only a week.

Both have political wings, the IRA's being Sinn Fein and ETA's a party named Herri Batasuna. Both deny affiliation with terrorists, but Herri Batasuna's leaders now face charges of collaboration. If convicted, they could face prison terms of up to 10 years.

On the campaign trail earlier this year, Spain's new prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, talked very tough, but in office, he has enjoyed increasing cordiality with the moderate non-violent Basque National Party, whose support he has had to depend on in the Spanish Cortes.

The Basques already have more autonomy than they have ever had. Paradoxically, from Aznar, a strong advocate of central power, they may be able to wrest a little more.

In the long run, all this would seen to work against ETA, which also lacks the support from Basques abroad that the IRA sometimes gets, especially from supporters in the United States.

And despite the recent bombings, it has been losing steam. From an average of 17 deaths a year since 1992, this year's toll is so far only four.

With the support of other Spanish parties, Aznar has carefully not ruled out negotiations, broken off with the Spanish Socialist government in 1989, if and when ETA releases a government official it holds captive, calls a cease-fire and above all accepts a plural democracy.

This last may be hard for the ETA. And here also is a parallel with the IRA, because both organizations are trying to impose policies opposed by a majority of the people in the countries they have targeted.

In being more flexible, Aznar seems to be handling the Basques more intelligently than British Prime Minister John Major is handling the people of Northern Ireland. The British cave-in to Protestant Unionist extremists there has produced a Catholic backlash that in turn has almost destroyed the most promising peace talks in years. And Northern Ireland may still face a hot summer.

In the long run, the Basque puzzle may be easier to solve than the Irish.