Hundreds of jailed members of the militant Basque separatist group ETA have called for an end to violence as a tool for achieving Basque independence, boosting pressure for ETA to disband and prompting the government on Saturday to call the appeal significant but insufficient.
A group representing the 700 ETA prisoners in Spain and France made the appeal in a statement Friday night, adding that they themselves should be granted amnesty.
The call endorsed a groundbreaking agreement reached late last year by pro-independence Basque political parties _ chiefly the remnants of ETA's banned political wing, Batasuna _ and civic groups that said Basque independence should be achieved through peaceful means, not by shooting people or setting off car bombs.
But the prisoners stopped short of calling on ETA to dissolve, as demanded by Spain, and reiterated traditional demands that the government also rejects, such as letting the Basque people decide whether to break away or remain part of Spain.
ETA declared a cease-fire in September 2010 and went further in January by calling the truce permanent and saying it was prepared to let international observers verify it.
ETA has killed 829 people since the late 1960s in a campaign of bombings and shootings aimed at forcing the government to allow creation of an independent Basque homeland straddling the Basque provinces of northern Spain and southwest France. But the group has been decimated in recent years by arrests of its leaders and members, and has not killed anyone in Spain in more than two years.
Government spokesman Jose Blanco said Saturday the prisoners' appeal was unprecedented.
"It is an important step, a significant one. But it is not the one that society in general and the government wanted because it is not definitive, nor is it the one that announces the end of ETA," Blanco said.
Debate among ETA prisoners _ seen as holding much sway in the organization _ on whether to renounce violence has been under way for months.
The appeal comes now with a general election due in Spain in November. The governing Socialists, who negotiated with ETA in 2006, are expected to lose badly to the opposition conservatives, in large part because of the dismal state of Spain's economy.
While many in Spain see Europe's last major armed militancy as being on its last legs, one big question mark is whether ETA will make some kind of big announcement before the voting on Nov. 20.
Some in Spain say ETA's demise _ the golden ring that successive Spanish governments have sought in vain for decades _ might conceivably be enough to save the Socialists by letting them claim credit for what would be a historic event.
Meanwhile, Basque police said some 10,000 protesters marched through the region's main city, Bilbao, Saturday evening to protest a 10-year jail term given Sept. 16 to activists who include Arnaldo Otegi, the former Batasuna leader who has been credited with leading the pro-independence community to reject violence as the way to achieve a Basque state.
A court in Madrid convicted Otegi and four others of forming an organization to replace Batasuna and serve as a political tool for ETA. Many Basques reacted angrily, saying the conviction dashed hopes for peace just as momentum toward it seemed to be building.
At the march, protest leaders hailed the decision by the ETA prisoners as setting the stage for a settlement. Many demonstrators waved the red, white and green Basque flag and chanted slogans calling on the government to transfer ETA prisoners scattered around the country to prisons in the Basque region _ a long-standing ETA demand.