The Basque separatist group ETA have released a statement announcing a “definitive cease” to its armed activity, following four decades of violence that has claimed the lives of 821 people.

However, the statement did not mention any plans for the organisation to hand over its weapons.

The statement, issued in Basque, Spanish, French and English, said: “ETA calls upon the Spanish and French governments to open a process of direct dialogue with the aim of addressing the resolution of the consequences of the conflict.”

Spain’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, reacted positively to the move, although he did emphasise that the victims of ETA’s violence would not be forgotten.

He said: “Ours will be a democracy without terrorism, but not without memory.”

This news follows a peace conference in San Sebastian on Monday during which a number of international negotiators, including former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, called for ETA to lay down its arms.

The government had previously avoided negotiations with ETA, after the last permanent ceasefire ended with a bomb at Madrid airport which killed two people in 2006.

Following a number of ceasefires which ETA used to reorganise, the French and Spanish governments cooperated in a massive security crackdown which has severely weakened the organisation.

A number of key arrests have damaged the leadership of ETA over the past few years.

This announcement could signal the end to Europe’s last significant armed struggle.