- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

MADRID — Millions of Spaniards poured into the streets yesterday, chanting “cowards” and “assassins” in a protest of the bombings that killed 199 persons. The Basque separatist group ETA denied the government’s accusation that it staged the attacks.

Many of the estimated 2.3 million marchers in Madrid huddled against a steady rain in a bobbing mass of umbrellas that clogged the capital’s squares and the area around the Atocha station, where two of the four trains blew up during Thursday morning’s rush hour.

“It is not raining. Madrid is crying,” said Jorge Mendez, a 20-year-old telecommunications student.

In a show of national unity, massive crowds also gathered in Barcelona, Seville, Valencia and even in Spain’s Canary Islands off western Africa. Nationwide, more than 11 million marched, state TV said.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who was joined by other European leaders as he led one march, pledged to hunt down the terrorists whose bombs sparked new fears about Europe’s vulnerability to attack.

In Washington, President Bush visited the Spanish Embassy and laid a wreath in memory of those killed in the bombing.

Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush also signed the condolence book in the home of Spanish Ambassador Javier Ruperez. The president wrote, “God bless the people of Spain,” and Mrs. Bush inscribed, “With love and sympathy to the people of Spain.”

The president told Mr. Ruperez that he appreciates “so very much your government’s strong stand against terrorism and terrorist organizations like ETA.”

The debate over who is responsible for the attacks could affect the outcome of national elections set for tomorrow.

Mr. Aznar and his government ministers blamed the armed group ETA, which has fought for decades for an independent Basque homeland. But there was concern that Islamic militants and perhaps even the al Qaeda terror network had been involved.

“So far, none of the intelligence services or security forces we have contacted have provided reliable information to the effect that it could have been an Islamic terrorist organization,” Interior Minister Angel Acebes said yesterday.

If ETA is found responsible, that could boost support for Mariano Rajoy, Mr. Aznar’s handpicked candidate to succeed him as prime minister. Both have supported a crackdown on ETA’s campaign for an independent state in northern Spain, ruling out talks and backing a ban on ETA’s political wing, Batasuna.

However, if the bombings are judged by voters as the work of al Qaeda, that could draw their attention to Mr. Aznar’s vastly unpopular decision to endorse the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and deploy Spanish troops there.

Mr. Rajoy is 3-to-5 percentage points ahead of Socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in polls.

A Batasuna leader, Arnaldo Otegi, accused the government of seeking political gain by blaming ETA for the blasts. “The Spanish government is lying,” he said.

The attack’s lethal coordination and timing — 10 explosions within 15 minutes — suggested the work of al Qaeda. But the compressed dynamite used in the backpack bombs is an explosive favored by ETA, officials said.

ETA denied responsibility, according to Gara, a Basque newspaper that the armed group uses to issue statements. The daily said a caller claiming to represent ETA phoned its newsroom yesterday to deny government assertion that the group was to blame.

It marked the first time ETA was known to have issued such a denial. The group normally takes blame for its attacks in statements to pro-Basque independence media several weeks afterward.

Suspicions of al Qaeda involvement gained weight after police found a stolen van with seven detonators and an Arabic-language tape of Koranic verses parked in a suburb near where the stricken trains originated. A London-based Arabic newspaper also received a claim of responsibility in al Qaeda’s name that called the attack “part of settling old accounts with Spain, the crusader, and America’s ally in its war against Islam.”

In a chilling account of the bombings, Spanish radio station Cadena Ser broadcast a 12-second recording of an unidentified woman who had called a colleague’s voice mail after an initial blast on a train at the Atocha station.

The woman, who survived, was in the process of evacuating as she frantically says: “I’m in Atocha. There’s a bomb on the train. We had to —” and then two more blasts are heard amid her screams.

The carnage toll climbed to 199 yesterday with the death of a 7-month-old girl. Of the more than 1,400 wounded, 367 persons remained hospitalized, about 50 in serious condition. Of the dead, 84 bodies remained unidentified. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, only the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 persons in 2002 have been more deadly.

Mr. Aznar said 14 foreigners were among the dead: three Peruvians, two Hondurans, two Poles, and a person each from France, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia, Morocco and Guinea-Bissau.

Workers in surgical masks and using cutting torches began dismantling huge sections of the bombed-out trains, taking samples for study.

The New York Police Department sent two persons from the intelligence division to Madrid — a bomb expert and a lieutenant who was assigned to Interpol.

Last night’s massive rallies in cities and towns across Spain were a remarkable show of unity in a nation divided by regional loyalties and languages.

“We all need to be here to repudiate these killings. All of us. It is our duty,” said Manuel Velasco, a university professor who was drenched from the rain.

Before the rallies began, offices, shops and cafes across Spain emptied at noon as people stood in silence on the streets to honor the dead. Authorities had requested a minute’s silence but many people in Madrid stood in wet, chilly weather for about 10 minutes.

The silence ended when the people broke into spontaneous applause in a traditional sign of respect and solidarity.

Mr. Aznar stood outside the presidential palace with senior officials. The silence there was broken when someone angrily shouted: “Send the terrorists to the firing squad.”

In the northern Basque region, hundreds of students and professors at the University of the Basque Country in Leioa also stood in silence.

“This is to show our rejection of violence and our solidarity with the families [of the dead],” said Mikel Luzuriaga, a medical student.

Underscoring the tension, police hastily evacuated the Atocha train station amid a bomb scare that turned out to be a false alarm.

Staff reporter James G. Lakely contributed to this article from Washington.

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