By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 12, 2004
MADRID, March 11 -- Ten nearly simultaneous explosions tore through four packed commuter trains in Madrid during rush hour Thursday morning, killing at least 190 people and wounding nearly 1,500 in the worst terrorist attack in modern Spanish history, three days before national elections.
The explosives were placed in backpacks and left aboard trains and on tracks at three stations. Witnesses describing the scenes of chaos and carnage said they heard multiple explosions at the city's busy Atocha station, which sent passengers scrambling in a panic. A makeshift emergency hospital was set up alongside the tracks at the station, just south of the Prado Museum. Buses were hurriedly converted into ambulances. The walking wounded were asked to make it to hospitals on their own, and leave vehicles available for the more severely injured.
Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar called the attacks "a mass murder" and compared them to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes in the United States. "March 11, 2004, now occupies a place in the history of infamy," he said.
Government officials and the media immediately blamed the attacks on the Basque separatist group ETA, which has fought for more than 30 years against the Spanish government.
Later Thursday, however, the Spanish interior minister, Angel Acebes, said the government was investigating a possible link to Islamic extremists after a van was discovered on the outskirts of Madrid carrying seven detonator caps and a cassette tape in Arabic containing verses from the Koran. The van was parked in the town of Alcala de Henares about 15 miles east of Madrid, where at least three of the targeted trains originated.
"I have given our security forces instructions not to rule out anything," Acebes said, adding that he still considered ETA the principal suspect.
The discovery of the van was followed by a report from London by the Arabic language Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper that it had received an e-mail from an Islamic militant group claiming responsibility for the attacks.
"This is part of settling old accounts with Spain, the crusader, and America's ally in its war against Islam," the letter said, claiming that it had been sent on behalf of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a group aligned with the al Qaeda terrorist network. The letter also said preparations for an attack on the United States were underway.
Spain has worked closely with the United States in the war against terrorism and has 1,300 troops in Iraq. Spanish officials have also rounded up al Qaeda suspects believed to be operating a terrorist cell in the country.
In October, Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, warned in an audiotape that countries, including Spain, that cooperated with the United States risked being targeted.
The Aznar government's support for the Iraq war was deeply unpopular among citizens, with polls indicating that 90 percent of the population was against it. Spain's involvement in Iraq had become a campaign issue, with the opposition Socialist Party promising to reverse the policy and bring troops home.
After the attacks, President Bush expressed "deepest sympathies" to Aznar and King Juan Carlos. "We stand strongly with the people of Spain," Bush said. "I appreciate so very much the Spanish government's fight against terror, their resolute stand against terrorist organizations like the ETA."
While the Aznar government's close ties to the Bush administration over Iraq have received little approval, its stance against ETA has been highly popular. The candidate of the governing Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy, has promised to continue the policy pursued by Aznar, who is stepping down after eight years in power. Rajoy's campaign had tacitly accused his Socialist challenger, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, of being softer on terrorism.
At Spain's insistence, the U.N. Security Council swiftly adopted a resolution condemning the attack and accusing ETA of carrying it out. After the vote, Spain's deputy ambassador, Ana Maria Menendez, declined to explain why officials had eliminated al Qaeda or other groups as potential perpetrators.
Security Council diplomats said they acted on the basis of Spain's assurances that ETA was responsible. "It is the judgment of the government of Spain that these attacks were carried out by the ETA, and we have no information to the contrary," said John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
ETA -- whose initials in the Basque language stand for Basque Homeland and Liberty -- has been held responsible for as many as 850 deaths since it began its campaign of violence in 1968. But the group is not known for carrying out attacks of this magnitude, and it typically has targeted government officials and members of the Spanish security forces. ETA also usually gives warnings before its strikes; no advance notice was reported Thursday.
The Spanish government in recent months had claimed that ETA had been severely weakened by arrests of its top commanders in Spain and in France, and by its labeling as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, steps that allowed for a more aggressive pursuit of the group's financial assets abroad.
But officials had lately warned that ETA was attempting to carry out a large-scale attack in advance of the elections Sunday. Last month, Spanish Civil Guard national police intercepted a van packed with a half-ton of explosive potassium chlorate, and arrested two suspected ETA members who they said were planning a major bombing attack in an industrial area of Madrid. Last year on Christmas Eve, police arrested two ETA suspects who they said were plotting a series of bombings on trains. Police in that case found a 44-pound bomb planted on a train heading from San Sebastian, in the Basque region, to Madrid.
At a news conference this afternoon, Acebes, the interior minister, said: "ETA had been looking for a massacre in Spain. Unfortunately, today, it achieved its goal."
But Arnaldo Otegi, the head of the banned political party Batasuna, charged by Aznar's government of being ETA's political wing, denied that ETA was responsible for Thursday's bombings. Otegi said in a telephone interview that "Batasuna strongly condemns today's attacks, like we condemned the 9/11 attacks."
Miren Azuarate, a spokeswoman for the Basque autonomous regional government based in Vitoria, also condemned the attacks and urged the Spanish government "not to use the attacks in a partisan or electoral way."
After the attacks, Spanish political parties suspended campaigning for the election, which the Popular Party had been widely expected to win. The government called for three days of national mourning, and demonstrations are being announced for Friday in Spain's largest cities.
The attacks were the worst in Western Europe since the bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988 that killed 270 people.
The strikes appeared well coordinated and timed to carry the most lethal impact possible, coming at the peak of the morning rush hour and targeting mainly workers and students on their way to Madrid for jobs and classes.
The first explosion occurred at the Atocha station at 7:35 a.m. and was quickly followed by several other explosions that ripped apart train cars and blew metal debris and body parts across a wide area of track and onto an adjacent street.
There were also explosions at El Pozo and Santa Eugenia, two smaller stations served by commuter trains bringing passengers into Madrid from eastern suburbs.
Witnesses at Atocha, Madrid's principal station, said rescue workers had to climb into the mangled wreckage of cars to carry out victims. At one point, a woman at the scene said, the police discovered an unexploded bomb and shouted for the area to be cleared, forcing rescue workers to abandon their efforts and run for cover.
In all, the interior minister and others said there were 13 bombs, most of them placed in backpacks and all containing about 28 to 33 pounds of explosives. Ten of the packs exploded, and the others were destroyed in controlled explosions. Police also destroyed a suspicious car found near one of the stations, and the controlled explosions heightened the sense of confusion and panic, witnesses said.
Special correspondents Robert Scarcia and Pamela Rolfe and staff writer Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.