The announcement by ETA, blamed for 829 killings since its founding in 1959, promised an end to Western Europe’s last major armed separatist campaign.
Three ETA militants dressed in black shirts with white hoods over their faces and black berets made the declaration terminating the deadly campaign for a Basque homeland, in a video posted online.
“ETA has decided the definitive cease of its armed activity,” the band said in a written statement in several languages, accompanying the video on the Internet site of Basque paper Gara, a mouthpiece for the group.
“ETA calls upon the Spanish and French governments to open a process of a direct dialogue with the aim of addressing the resolution of the consequences of the conflict and, thus, to overcome the armed confrontation,” it said.
“Through this historic declaration, ETA shows its clear, solid and definitive commitment.”
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in his last weeks of power before general elections on November 20, said ETA’s decision was a victory for democracy and remembered those killed by the group.
“Let us live today the legitimate satisfaction of a victory for democracy, law and reason, a satisfaction stained by the unforgettable memory of the pain caused by a violence which should never have occurred and which should never return,” the prime minister said in a televised address.
After repeated ETA statements rejected by the prime minister, this was the first to be hailed as the final chapter.
The man tipped to win next month’s election, the opposition Popular Party’s leader Mariano Rajoy, called for ETA’s total dissolution.
“We consider this an important step, but the peace of mind of Spaniards will only be complete when ETA is irreversibly dissolved and completely disbanded,” he told a news conference.
His rival in the election, Zapatero’s former interior minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, recalled those killed in ETA attacks.
“If only this day had come sooner,” Rubalcaba told reporters.
Some groups representing ETA’s victims expressed dissatisfaction at its announcement.
“They are sparing our lives but we are disappointed because this is not the final step,” said Maria del Mar Blanco, a member of the Basque regional parliament whose brother, councillor Miguel Angel Blanco, was killed by ETA in 1997.
“They do not talk of disbanding the terrorist group nor of surrendering their arms,” she told AFP. “They recognise their own victims but do not recognise the nearly thousand innocent victims they have murdered.”
ETA, classed as a terrorist group by the European Union and United States, bemoaned the loss of its comrades in the decades of violence but made no clear apology to its victims.
“This has not been an easy way. The cruelty of the fight has taken away the lives of many comrades. Many others are still suffering in prison and in exile,” it said.
The trigger for ETA’s announcement was a “peace conference” in San Sebastian, northern Spain, on Monday, which called on ETA to renounce violence and for France and Spain to enter talks on the “consequences of the conflict”.
Neither the Spanish government nor the outlawed ETA were at the conference, which included top peace negotiators such as Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party president Gerry Adams.
In a statement Thursday, Adams welcomed ETA’s announcement and urged Spain and France to agree to talks including over “the issue of prisoners and of demilitarising the environment”.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair hailed as a “very big moment” ETA’s calling of a ceasefire after bringing to bear his experience of the Irish peace process on the negotiations.
The former premier warned there were “lots of issues to be resolved” but that “taking violence out of the equation” was the most important step, during a BBC interview.
The United States voiced caution and said it was premature to take the ETA group off its terrorist blacklist.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters: “We’re not in a position at this time to determine the validity or seriousness or, frankly, the intent of the ETA announcement.”
ETA is calling for its imprisoned members to be placed in Basque Country jails instead of being spread around the country.
Severely weakened by Spanish and French security forces, which detained many of its leaders, the armed group has launched no attack on Spanish soil since August 2009.
The armed fight for a Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France was born in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who suppressed the Basque language and any signs of independence.
Its violent struggle had waned in recent years even as it made big strides through peaceful politics.
A new alliance of Basque separatist parties — Bildu — caused a major upset by beating Spain’s ruling Socialist Party in municipal elections in May this year.