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Bomb kills Spanish politician, ETA blamed

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MADRID, — A bomb blamed on the Basque separatist group ETA killed a local politician in northern Spain on Saturday, casting a shadow over a ceremony to swear in the Basque president and Pamplona's running of the bulls festival.

Jose Javier Mugica Astibia, 58, a town councillor from Leiza, was killed by explosives planted on the underside of his small van, police said.

A witness told state radio Mugica's van, parked near his home, blew up when he opened the door. His wife and children came running out after the explosion, the neighbour said.

The explosion came just hours before recently re-elected Basque regional President Juan Jose Ibarretxe was sworn in for his second term of office in a centuries-old tradition at an oak tree in the Basque city of Guernica.

The start of the ceremony was marked by a minute's silence.

"The shine in our hearts has darkened, greatly saddened by an inhuman and undignified act," Ibarretxe said at the ceremony.

The attack took place about 40 km (25 miles) from Pamplona, where the annual running of the bulls festival concluded on Saturday.

Authorities in the town said all the day's official events would take place without the traditional music as a sign of protest.

Threatened before

Mugica was one of two Leiza councillors from the centre-right UPN party, a regional party from Navarre aligned with Madrid's ruling Popular Party. He also drove a bus and owned a photography shop in Leiza, state radio said.

UPN party officials said he had previously been threatened by ETA, which has killed about 800 people since 1968 in its bid to form an independent homeland in Basque regions of northern Spain and southwestern France.

"Today I have one companion less in the party, but today we also have the same determination to defeat terrorism," Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar told reporters.

Aznar has ruled out making any concessions to ETA separatists and vows to defeat the group with force.

ETA was born under the fascist dictatorship of Generalisimo Francisco Franco, who brutally repressed Basque nationalism. Though Franco died in 1975, the armed group has continued to kill, drawing widespread and harsh condemnation across Spain.

Its support is limited to a radical Basque nationalist party, seen as ETA's political wing, which won 10 percent of the votes in May's regional elections, down from 18 percent in 1998.

Targets politicians

ETA typically targets low-level politicians or security forces.

The last fatal attack was on Tuesday, when a police officer was killed by a car bomb in Madrid.

Mugica's death is the 33rd attributed to ETA since the end of a ceasefire in December 1999.

Tomas Caballero, a UPN councillor from Pamplona, was shot dead by ETA in May 1998, four months before ETA called the ceasefire, which lasted 14 months.

UPN party chiefs paid tribute to Mugica and Caballero.

"Last year they burnt his (Mugica's) van and since then, like all UPN councillors, he had surveillance and protection measures, although I can't say right now exactly what," Juan Jose Cruz Perez, vice president of the UPN, told Spain's CNN+ television.

"He was an idealist and very hardworking," Cruz Perez said. "If they (ETA) wanted to do harm, they have done so because they (Mugica and Caballero) were very loved people in the UPN."

Hard-line Basque separatists consider the Navarre region surrounding Pamplona to be part of a historic Basque homeland, but Navarre is not one of the three provinces making up Spain's semi-autonomous Basque Country.

Navarre has a Basque history but also has been its own kingdom over which wars were fought. A minority of people there consider themselves Basque.