The Basque militant group ETA called an end to a 43-year violent campaign for independence Thursday and said it now wants talks with Spain and France — a groundbreaking move that could pave the way for ending Europe's last armed militancy.

ETA had already declared a cease-fire last year — one of nearly a dozen over the years — but up to now had not renounced armed struggle as a tool for achieving an independent Basque state, a key demand by the Spanish government. The group made the latest announcement to Basque daily Gara, which it regularly uses as a mouthpiece.

A glance at the armed Basque separatist group ETA and its conflict with Spain.

ETA was formed in 1959 during the right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. Its name is a Basque-language acronym for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning Basque Homeland and Freedom.

The group wants to create an independent state made up of Basque areas in northern Spain and southwestern France and parts of the northern Spanish region of Navarra. Many people in those areas speak Basque.

After initially seeking its goals through political means, ETA began to resort to violence, mainly car bombs and point-blank shootings. Its first killing was in 1968. ETA is blamed for 829 deaths. The group's last deadly attack in Spain was a July 2009 car bomb that killed two policemen on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca.

— The Associated Press

The Basque country is a small but wealthy and verdant region of northern Spain, with its own distinct culture and an ancient language that linguists cannot trace and sounds nothing like Spanish. Under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who was obsessed with the idea of Spain as a unitary state and suppressed Basque culture, ETA emerged as a national liberation movement in the late 1960s.

It was most violent in the 1980s, staging hundreds of shootings of police and politicians and even occasional indiscriminate bombings of civilians.

Reportedly only 50 fighters left

But in more recent times it has been decimated by arrests and weakening support from Basques with little stomach for terrorism after Sept. 11 and the Madrid train bombings of 2004 by Islamic militants. It has not killed anyone in Spain in two years, and was reportedly down to as few as 50 fighters, many of them young and inexperienced.

In many ways Thursday's announcement was the culmination of a drum roll that has sounded for years.

"ETA has decided on the definitive end of its armed struggle," the group said in the statement. "ETA calls upon the Spanish and French governments to open a process of a direct dialogue."

ETA, which has killed 829 people in bombings and shootings since the late 1960s, is classified as a terrorist organization by Spain, the European Union and the U.S. Its first killing was in 1968.

The statement made no mention of what the group intended to do with its weapons.

Spanish PM hails news as victory

Some kind of announcement from ETA has been expected as part of what seemed to be a carefully choreographed process. It began a year ago when its political supporters renounced violence, ETA called a cease-fire and international figures like former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan this week attended a conference that called on ETA to lay down its weapons.

The statement made no mention of dissolving outright and unconditionally as the government has demanded, and asserted what it says is the right of the Basque people to decide their own future — the status quo as part of Spain or independence.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hailed the news as a victory for Spanish democracy. In a brief appearance before reporters, however, he made no mention of prospects for dialogue with ETA. Talks in 2006 went nowhere and ETA ended a cease-fire after just a few months.

Zapatero's Socialist party is expected to lose general elections scheduled for Nov. 20. So it is likely up to the conservative Popular Party to decide how to proceed now.