BILBAO, Spain (AP) — Tens of thousands of people demonstrated Saturday in the Basque city of Bilbao, calling for some 350 imprisoned members and sympathizers of the armed pro-Basque independence group ETA to be allowed serve their sentences closer to home in northern Spain.
In addition to prisoners' families and pro-independence politicians, some relatives of ETA victims took part for the first time in the annual demonstration.
Protesters marched through the city holding placards that read "I Denounce" the Spanish government's policy of dispersing ETA prisoners in 40 prisons across Spain to restrict contacts between them.
Rosa Rodero, widow of a police sergeant assassinated by the ETA in 1993, marched behind a banner reading "Basque prisoners to the Basque Country."
"All people here in the Basque country, we have fought a lot, we had to suffer a lot. The only thing we want is that peace comes and that peace is also given to these people," she said, referring to the prisoners.
ETA killed 829 people in its nearly four-decade campaign to create a Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France. The group announced a permanent cease-fire in 2011, but Spain's Interior Ministry says there will be no change in its dispersion policy until the group fully disarms and its members ask for pardons.
But AVT, the largest association of relatives of terror victims, urged that any movement of prisoners be done only on a case-by-case basis for humanitarian reasons.
"I don't think the victims of ETA should support having their assassins closer to home just because the ETA stopped killing five years ago," said AVT president Alfonso Sanchez, who survived an ETA bombing in 1985.
Last month Spanish and French police made five arrests after discovering a suspected ETA weapons trove in southern France.
The Interior Ministry refuses to say how many ETA prisoners are jailed in Spain but the protest organizers say there are 273 ETA prisoners in Spain but just two in the Basque region. Another 78 are in French jails. They say many relatives and friends have to travel hundreds of kilometers (miles) to visit the ETA inmates.
Amnesty International says the dispersion policy goes against U.N. standards.
The economically powerful Basque region is one of 17 semi-autonomous regions in Spain. Opinion polls have long indicated a majority of its 2.2 million residents do not favor splitting from Spain.
Associated Press writers Ciaran Giles and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.