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Jaime Mayor Oreja

It was a high-risk mission in the embattled Basque country, and to accomplish it Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar selected his ace, former Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja. The unenviable task for Mayor Oreja was to run as Madrid's candidate in the May 13 regional elections.

It sounds simple enough. But the 50-year-old Mayor Oreja, a Basque who has led the fight from Madrid against the ETA separatist army, is one of the most hated men in his native region. He put his life on the line to campaign, confronting one of Western Europe's enduring bastions of murderous intolerance.

Indeed, in the past 16 months, ETA, with 800 killings in its 30-year history, has extended its campaign of terror from politicians and policemen to the population at large, targeting those who raise their voices against terror. Mayor Oreja, surrounded by bodyguards, campaigned for peace and against Basque independence.

Mayor Oreja lost the election, as expected, finishing with half as many seats as the winning nationalist party, the democratic Partido Nacionalista Vasco. But his message of peace made apparent inroads, and nationalist voters turned from the ETA. The separatist army's parliamentary wing, called Euskal Herritarrok, lost half its seats. What's more, while he remains unloved in the Basque country, Mayor Oreja is now the most popular politician in the rest of Spain, ranking ahead of his longtime friend and political partner, Aznar. He has a chance to succeed the Prime Minister in 2004. The Basques haven't seen the end of him.

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