SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain -- Basques digesting the apparent end of separatist group ETA's armed campaign are taking it with quiet, careful relief. Because the more than four decades of violence were too agonizing, there was no celebratory dancing in the streets or champagne bottles being popped open.
"There seems to be a sort of restrained euphoria," said Pedro Ontoso, deputy director of El Correo, a major Basque newspaper.
The government has ruled out talks with ETA, rejecting an appeal for dialogue made by the militant group Thursday in announcing its "definitive cease of armed action." People in this small but prosperous patch of northern Spain and elsewhere in the country feel they are experiencing a cherished slice of history after 43 years of shootings and bombings that have left 829 people dead.
ETA has raised hopes before with announcements of cease-fires, even ones it called permanent, like a truce in 2006 that ETA ended after nine months with a huge car bombing that killed two people.
But this time, ETA's bombs and bullets – if not the organization itself or its goal of an independent Basque state – do seem to be gone for good, Basques said.
"The sky is a beautiful blue, and we are living moments of excitement and hope after recovering the peace and freedom that society wanted so badly," said Miguel Angel Lujua, president of the Basque business federation Confebask. Its members had routinely received extortion demands from ETA and traveled with bodyguards. Lujua was among them.
ETA has been decimated by arrests in recent years and declining grass roots support among Basque nationalists who stomached its violent campaign in exchange for working toward the goal of independence. It had not killed anyone in Spain in two years and was reportedly down to as few as 50 fighters.
ETA's political supporters renounced violence last year in a monumental, much-debated shift and advocated the pro-independence movement shifting to the strictly political and peaceful realm. It wanted ETA to do the same, but ETA resisted for the time being.
In September, ETA declared a cease-fire – its 11th since emerging in the late 1960s – made it permanent in January, and watched as pressure from its political supporters – and jailed members – mounted. This week, ETA was urged by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and other international figures to lay down arms.
It did, but more with the defiant cry of a victor than the humility of a defeated guerrilla group. It did not apologize to its victims, said nothing about giving up its weapons and reiterated that Basques have a right to decide their own future – status quo or independence, which the government rules out. Critics said ETA is really just moving a piece on a chess board.
Indeed, on Friday a representative of ETA's banned political wing Batasuna reiterated demands for talks on the region's future.
"The cessation of violence by ETA does not mean the political conflict is over," Maribi Ugarteburu told reporters in San Sebastian.
Lujua, speaking from the Basque city of Bilbao, said he believed ETA was sincere this time about staging no more attacks, and that he had expected people to be happier than what he's seen in the street.
He used a mountain-climbing metaphor – it used to be his hobby – to try to explain the anticlimactic reaction, and said the new reality of definitive peace will take a while to sink in.
"When you scale a difficult mountain and reach the peak, you feel sort of empty. You say, 'I got here and really exerted myself, but do not feel particularly happy,'" he said. "It is only when you go back down to the base camp, and go home, and a few days go by, that you realize the triumph you have achieved."
Former ETA member Kepa Aulestia said that to some extent, ETA has salvaged victory even as it laid down arms. He said this is because pro-independence politicians that support ETA, if not its violent tactics, were allowed to run in local Basque elections in May and did very well.
A similar, new party called Amaiur is running for seats in the national parliament in Madrid in Nov. 20 general elections, and could also do reasonably well not that ETA seems to have renounced violence. So in effect, ETA is sort of slipping away but retaining a voice in politics – both in the Basque region and perhaps in Madrid.
"A true defeat would have been to be left out of the picture in the future, in addition to having to lay down arms," Aulestia said.
Aulestia said ETA's call for talks with Spain and France – the homeland ETA wants to create includes parts of southwest France – on the "consequences" of the conflict refer to the estimated 700 ETA prisoners scattered around Spanish jails and in France, and perhaps some kind of concession, like moving them to the Basque region itself to be closer to their families.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy commended Spain for the turn of events and promised continued support to assure peace. A statement said he praised Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero "and, beyond that, authorities, political officials and the Spanish people for this victory of democracy over violence."
He paid homage to the victims of ETA terrorism.
"France will continue to provide unwavering support to Spain in its efforts to assure a definitive peace in the Basque country," the statement said.
Spain's conservative Popular Party is expected to win the November election, and even if it balks at such a concession ETA is unlikely to revert to violence, Aulestia said. It does not have the means or people, for one thing.
Despite its long-awaited peace gesture, ETA still came in for criticism, among other things for not apologizing to its victims or dissolving outright.
The center-right newspaper El Mundo said in an editorial there is no guarantee ETA will not revert to violence if its goals are not met. "If 'permanent' can stop being 'permanent'," why should 'definitive' continue to be so?"
It also noted that ETA's announcement came the same day ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed, and ran a cartoon showing him and an ETA member walking away from a huge pool of blood, leaving red footprints as they head toward a field of flames.
"Do you think we left a mark?" the ETA man asks.
Daniel Woolls reported from Madrid. Ciaran Giles contributed to this report from Madrid.