- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

From combined dispatches

MADRID — Simultaneous bomb blasts ripped through four packed commuter trains in Madrid yesterday, killing 192 persons and injuring more than 1,400 in Europe’s bloodiest terrorist attack in more than 15 years.

Spain focused blame on the Basque separatist group ETA, but a purported al Qaeda letter claimed responsibility for the 10 blasts and said a big attack on the United States was nearly ready, causing jitters in world financial markets.

“March 11, 2004, now holds its place in the history of infamy,” Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said.

President Bush called Mr. Aznar and King Juan Carlos, saying he expressed “our country’s deepest sympathies toward those who lost their life.”

“I told them we weep with the families. We stand strong with the people of Spain,” he said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who issued a statement “vehemently” condemning the bombings, spoke twice by phone with Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio in the hours after the attack.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said initial reports from the U.S. Embassy in Madrid found no Americans among the dead or wounded.

The 10 backpack bombs exploded within a 15-minute span, starting about 7:40 a.m., on trains along nine miles of commuter line from Santa Eugenia to the Atocha terminal, a bustling hub for subway, commuter and long-distance trains just south of the famed Prado Museum. Police also found and detonated three other bombs.

Panicked commuters trampled each other, abandoning their bags and shoes, after two of the bombs went off in one train at the Atocha station.

Worst hit was a double-decker train at El Pozo station, where two bombs killed 70 persons, fire department inspector Juan Redondo told the Associated Press. One body was blown onto the roof.

As pictures of the carnage were beamed around the globe, France said it would raise its terror-alert level and Greece, host of the Olympic Games in August, also stepped up security measures.

After initially blaming the ETA for the attack, three days before Spain’s general election, Mr. Aznar’s government said a stolen van had been found near Madrid carrying seven detonators and an Arabic tape of Koran verses.

“The conclusion of this morning that pointed to [the ETA] right now is still the main line of investigation. … [But] I have given the security forces instructions not to rule out anything,” Interior Minister Angel Acebes told reporters.

No authentication was available on the purported al Qaeda letter, a copy of which was faxed to Reuters by the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. The letter was attributed to the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, a group that aligns itself with al Qaeda.

A U.S. official who declined to be identified said the group had made false claims in the past.

“We have succeeded in infiltrating the heart of crusader Europe,” the letter said, calling the attack “Operation Death Trains.”

“We bring the good news to Muslims of the world that the expected ‘Winds of Black Death’ strike against America is now in its final stage,” it added.

U.S. intelligence agencies said it was too early to say who was responsible for the train bombs but saw the hallmarks of both the ETA and al Qaeda, which has threatened to attack countries such as Spain that supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The attack occurred precisely 911 days after “9/11,” as the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States are widely known.

The Basque party Batasuna, accused by officials of being part of the ETA, said it “absolutely rejected” the bombings at three Madrid train stations and was convinced the ETA was not responsible.

“The train was cut open like a can of tuna,” ambulance driver Enrique Sanchez said at Atocha station. “We didn’t know who to treat first. There was a lot of blood, a lot of blood.”

Passenger Ana Maria Mayor’s voice cracked as she told reporters, “I saw a baby torn to bits.”

Mr. Aznar called on Spaniards, who have protested in millions against past attacks by the ETA, to take to the streets today.

His center-right government declared three days of national mourning and said schools, museums and the central bank would shut.

“An act of barbaric terrorism has engulfed Spain with profound pain, repulsion and anger,” King Juan Carlos said on national television.

Spanish newspapers rushed out special editions with headlines such as “Massacre in Madrid” or “Our 9/11” and pictures of bloodied passengers and wrecked trains.

People lit candles in Madrid for the victims. Vigils were held elsewhere in Spain, and thousands gathered in the Basque region’s capital Vitoria, some shouting “murderers” at Premier Juan Jose Ibarretxe.

In Barcelona, thousands banged pots and pans, saying they were protesting Mr. Aznar’s support for the Iraq war because they said it had made Spain an al Qaeda target.

“We see a link between the Spanish state and its policy of intervention in Iraq with al Qaeda,” said Manuel Fernandez, 25.

ETA has killed about 850 people since 1968 in its fight for a separate Basque state in northwest Spain and southwest France, and has been branded a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

The Basque group’s most deadly confirmed attack killed 21 persons at a supermarket in Barcelona in 1987.

Yesterday’s death toll was the biggest in a terrorist attack in Europe since December 1988, when a bomb exploded on a Pan Am Boeing 747, bringing it down on the Scottish town of Lockerbie. In all, 270 persons died.

Many political analysts said that if the ETA was responsible for the attack, it would favor Mr. Aznar’s Popular Party in Sunday’s general election because of its hard line against the group.

“If, however, the rumors about al Qaeda gain credence, then things would be perceived in a very different way,” said pollster Julian Santamaria. Mr. Aznar, who is not seeking re-election, defied main opposition parties and huge public antiwar sentiment to back the Iraq war.

European shares suffered their worst fall of 2004 as the attack, combined with fears about economic recovery, spooked investors. In the United States, the Dow Jones industrial average closed down 1.64 percent.

Staff writer David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report, which is based on wire services reports.

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