Madrid (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Basques held hands forming a 123-kilometre (76-mile) human chain across their region on Sunday in a push for independence from Spain.
Demonstrators, many draped in red, white and green Basque flags, raised their linked hands in the air along country roads and through towns in the region under a clear sky as a helicopter flew over.
Over 150,000 people joined the chain, which extended from the city of Durango to Pamplona, the capital of the neighbouring Navarra region which has a significant Basque-speaking population, according to the event organiser called "It's In Our Hands".
"This is a democratic demand. We are saying we are a people, we have the right to decide and now is the time," a spokesman for the group, Angel Oiarbide, told reporters.
Organisers had said on the eve of the event that 100,000 people had registered to take part.
The protest was backed by tiny Basque separatist parties and it was inspired by a similar event held in September in Catalonia when hundreds of thousands of people showed their support for independence by joining hands along a 400-kilometre stretch of the Mediterranean coast.
The Basque Country -- a region of green hills falling to an Atlantic coastline of coves and inlets near the French border that has its own distinct language and culture -- has a long history of fighting for greater autonomy from Spain.
After the country returned to democracy following the death of longtime dictator General Francisco Franco, the region recovered its own police force and some of the tax independence it historically enjoyed.
A peaceful independence movement has gathered pace in recent months in the region, which is home to just over two million people, partly inspired by plans to hold independence votes in Catalonia and Scotland.
The regional government of Catalonia is pushing to hold a referendum on independence from Spain on November 9, flying in the face of fierce opposition from the central government in Madrid.
Scotland's independence referendum on September 18 was approved by the British government.
- 'Our Right' -
Organisers of the Basque human chain rented a fleet of over 900 buses to drop participants off at specific spots along the route while 2,500 volunteers ensured the demonstrators found their places.
A young man set off a rocket in Durango at noon to mark the start of the human chain, in which participants held hands during half an hour.
"I did not think we would manage to unite so many people and with so much emotion," Inaki Gorritxategi, 83, the first person in the human chain in Durango, told regional Basque television.
At one point along the route participants snaked along a large white canvas with the message "Basques Decide" written in large yellow letters in English that was set on the pavement of a parking lot.
Demonstrators also wrote "Gure Erabaki", which means "Our Decision" in the Basque language, and "Gure Eskubidea", which means "Our Right", in large white letters on two hills along the route.
The armed Basque separatist group ETA, which has been weakened by a string of arrests and dwindling popular support for its violent tactics, announced an end to violence in 2011.
Earlier this year the group, which is blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a four-decade campaign for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France, said it would put its arsenal of weapons "out of operational use".
But it has so far refused to disband or disarm as demanded by the Spanish and French governments.