Five Held in Madrid Blasts

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 14, 2004

MADRID, March 14 -- The Spanish government announced Saturday that three Moroccans and two Indians, possibly with links to Muslim extremist groups, had been arrested in connection with Thursday's multiple bombings on rush-hour trains in Madrid, which killed 200 people and injured nearly 1,500.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes said that two other people, whom he described as Spaniards of Indian descent, were also being questioned and that several buildings and houses were being searched for more leads. Earlier, government officials had repeatedly said they believed Basque separatists carried out the bombings.

Acebes announced the arrests at a news conference on national television just after 8 p.m. "Sixty hours after the brutal attacks, we now have five detentions," he said.

He said the suspects had been linked to a cellular telephone and a cell-phone card found Friday night in a gym bag that also contained undetonated explosives and wiring. The bag had been mistakenly placed among train luggage lost after the attacks. Police said they believed Thursday's attackers used the same technique -- wiring explosives inside gym bags and backpacks to cell phones -- to bomb the trains.

At another news conference early Sunday, Acebes said authorities had received a videotape in which a man identifying himself as al Qaeda's military spokesman in Europe asserted responsibility for the attacks. "We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly 21/2 years after the attacks on New York and Washington," the man said, according to a government translation of the tape, which was recorded in Arabic. "It is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies."

Acebes said the videotape was discovered after an Arabic-speaking man called a Madrid television station and described where it could be found. Acebes cautioned, however, that the authenticity of the claim could not be immediately confirmed.

The arrests appeared to throw the country into political turmoil just hours before polls were scheduled to open for national elections scheduled for Sunday, capping a long and emotional day spent burying and cremating dozens of victims of the attacks.

Reports of the suspected Islamic link brought thousands of anti-government protesters onto the streets of Madrid. They converged on offices of the ruling Popular Party and accused the outgoing prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, of withholding information and trying to manipulate public opinion about the terror attacks before the elections. There were similar anti-government protests in Barcelona and Bilbao.

The protesters blamed Aznar and his pro-American policies -- including sending 1,300 Spanish troops to Iraq -- for the bombings, and said the government initially tried to ascribe blame to the Basque separatist group ETA to avert a popular backlash before the Sunday elections.

Aznar's handpicked successor, Mariano Rajoy, has pledged to continue the prime minister's pro-American policies. His Socialist Party challenger, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has promised to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq immediately. In a speech Saturday night at the besieged party headquarters in Madrid, Rajoy called the protests outside illegal and appealed for people to remain calm and for the demonstrators to disperse, but his plea was ignored.

Acebes continued to insist Saturday night that no group had been ruled out as a suspect in the bombings. "Police are still investigating all avenues," Acebes said. "This is an open investigation, which is only just starting."

Acebes provided little information about the suspects arrested Saturday, but said they "could be connected to Muslim extremist groups." He added, "All of them are implicated in the sale and falsification of the mobile phone and the mobile phone card found in the bag that did not explode."

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