Thousands march in Spain's Basque region for return of ETA prisoners

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Relatives of Basque prisoners hold banners reading "Basques prisoners and fugitives back home" during a protest in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao to demand the transfer of ETA prisoners to jails near their homes

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in the Basque Country on Saturday to demand prisoners linked to the former armed separatist group ETA be transferred to jails closer to the northern Spanish region.

Some 65,000 people marched through the streets of Bilbao, the region's most populous city, calling for prisoners dispersed in jails across Spain to be moved nearer to home and for an amnesty, according to municipal police.

Many waved red-white-and-green Basque flags while the crowd chanted "Basque prisoners must return home" as it made its way to city hall.

Spanish government policy has been to keep most ETA prisoners in jails hundreds of kilometres away from the region, which had made it difficult and expensive for relatives to visit.

After coming to power in June 2018, a month after ETA disbanded, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pledged to start reversing the policy but organisations which work with ETA prisoners complain there has been little progress.

The demonstration aimed to show that Basque society does not want "the children of these prisoners to have to travel hundreds of kilometres for a 40 minute visit," Joseba Azkarraga, the spokesman for Sare, a group which lobbies on behalf of prisoners told reporters.

A second protest is scheduled to take place in Bayonne, in the French Basque Country, later on Saturday also calling for prisoners to be moved.

The treatment of ETA prisoners is a sensitive one for Sanchez's government, which would be certain to anger victims associations and conservatives if it made any concessions to prisoners.

ETA is blamed for the deaths of over 800 people in a four-decade campaign of bombings and shootings in pursuit of an independent homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.

Sanchez was sworn in last week for a second term after parliament narrowly confirmed him as prime minister thanks in part to the abstention of five lawmakers from Basque pro-independence party Bildu on a confidence vote.

There currently just over 200 people in prison in Spain over their links to ETA, of which only a handful are in jails in the Basque Country, according to Etxerat, an association of prisoner families.

Over two-thirds are in prisons located over 500 kilometres (300 miles) away, with 19 held at a prison in the southwestern province of Cadiz, about 1,000 kilometres away.

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