Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar went to the troubled Basque region yesterday to condemn a proposed Basque referendum on greater self rule as pro-independence demonstrators marched in the streets. Aznar was never in harm's way thanks to a massive security operation, but his mere presence in the divided Basque Country rankled Basque nationalists opposed to the central government's methods of fighting the armed separatist group ETA. It was Aznar's first trip to the region since Basque leader Juan Jose Ibarretxe proposed a referendum last week on joint Spanish-Basque sovereignty over the Basque Country to make it a state of free association with Spain. Local commentators have likened Ibarretxe's plan to the laws governing Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States. Aznar has vowed to stop it, saying it would violate the Spanish constitution and infringe on the rights of those who want the Basque Country to remain Spanish. “There are hundreds of thousands of Basques who don't want to be forced into being subjects and being excluded from this country,” Aznar told a congress of his Popular Party in Bilbao. “We don't want a Basque state of free association. We want a participatory Basque Country, just as it has been, just as it has to be and just as it will remain,” Aznar said. As he spoke, hundreds of demonstrators marched the streets of Bilbao under the banner “Long Live the Basque Homeland”, using a term for territory that includes Spain's three official Basque provinces plus Navarre and three provinces in France. The demonstration of about 1'000 people was peaceful and authorities did not try to stop it, unlike other Basque demonstrations banned for praising ETA or a radical political party linked to the group. ETA is western Europe's most active guerrilla group, having killed 837 people since 1968 in its campaign for an independent Basque state. Spain, the United States and the European Union have labelled it a terrorist organisation. Aznar spearheaded a law, now before the Supreme Court, that would ban the radical Basque separatist party Batasuna for refusing to condemn ETA violence.

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