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Numbed Spaniards struggle to understand murder of ETA hostage

July 14, 1997 GMT

BILBAO, Spain (AP) _ Punching the air and shouting ``Murderers!″, tens of thousands of Spaniards rallied in the streets Sunday to vent their anger over the killing of a young councilman by Basque separatist kidnappers.

Many of the demonstrators were among half a million people who marched Saturday along the same boulevards to plead for the life of Miguel Angel Blanco, who was abducted Thursday. That procession was led by Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose appeal for Blanco’s release was televised nationwide.

The 29-year-old accountant was found handcuffed and shot Saturday afternoon in a wooded area near the Basque city of San Sebastian. He died Sunday morning.

When the demonstrators flocked again to the streets of this Basque capital Sunday evening, they voiced their rage and grief, raising their fists and shouting ``Murderers!″ and ``Miguel! Miguel!″ They also called for an end to ETA, the group that kidnapped Blanco.

``We must stop being afraid of ETA and join together so that this terrorism ends once and for all,″ said Felix Maccoaga, a school teacher in Bilbao, 200 miles north of Spain’s capital, Madrid.

In Ermua, Blanco’s hometown, black ribbons and white sheets of mourning adorned balconies and thousands of mourners shouted his name and clapped as his body was driven up to the town hall to lie in state until his funeral.

Spaniards appeared deeply shaken after the slaying.

``I thought that after the march they wouldn’t kill him,″ said carpenter Felix Castillo. ``I think the public is powerless to stop any of this.″

``It’s all very, very sad,″ said Sandra Pereida, standing at a bus stop. ``Frankly, though, I thought ETA would kill him. That’s what they do.″

King Juan Carlos eulogized Blanco, the son of a construction worker, as an ``innocent victim of fanatic terrorism.″ ETA inmate Joseba Carrasco, meanwhile, said he would begin a hunger strike to protest the murder from his jail cell in the southern Spanish city of Cordoba.

Blanco’s funeral, scheduled for noon Monday, is to coincide with an hourlong work stoppage across the Basque region.

Basque regional president Jose Antonio Ardanza urged Spaniards to attend one of the many candlelight vigils planned in memory of Blanco and in opposition to ETA.

``ETA is more lonely than yesterday, weaker than yesterday and more cornered than yesterday,″ said Ardanza. ``Yesterday’s rallies have proved that the people in the street will win the battle against ETA.″

Pope John Paul II and Amnesty International were among those imploring ETA to release Blanco.

The events surrounding Blanco’s kidnapping and murder had consumed the attention of a Spanish public that prayed he would be spared.

After Blanco was seized Thursday, ETA said he would be killed unless some 450 ETA prisoners were transferred from jails around Spain to ones in the Basque region. The government refused.

ETA, an acronym for Basque Homeland and Freedom, has killed almost 800 people, mostly Spanish security force members, since it began fighting in 1968 for the creation of an independence Basque country in northern Spain.

The transfer of ETA prisoners to the northern Spanish region, supported by moderate Basque nationalist parties, has been routinely rejected by the Madrid government for reasons of security.

ETA’s political arm, Herri Batasuna, rejected calls to condemn Blanco’s murder. In the group’s first statement since Blanco’s murder, it said they were a victim of the ``criminalization of Basque independence.″

Earlier Sunday, police in the northern city of Pamplona used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up fights between protestors and ETA supporters.

The prisoner’s support group Senideak blamed the government for Blanco’s death, saying that a mass transfer could have averted the execution.