- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

MADRID — A man purporting to represent al Qaeda claimed in a videotaped message that the terrorist network was behind the bombings in Madrid that killed 200 and wounded more than 1,500, Spain’s interior minister said late last night.

The video along with the detention yesterday of three Moroccans and two Indians as suspects provides the strongest indication yet that Islamic radicals plotted Thursday’s attack on one of Washington’s staunchest allies in the war in Iraq.

The Spanish government, however, said it could not confirm the tape’s authenticity.

The announcement by Interior Minister Angel Acebes came just hours before polls were to open today in general elections weighed down by debate over who carried out the 10 nearly simultaneous bombings of four commuter trains.

“We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly 2 years after the attacks on New York and Washington,” the man on the video said, according to a government translation of the short message, recorded in Arabic. “It is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies.”

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, the nation’s outgoing leader, has been a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

A London-based Arabic newspaper earlier received a claim of responsibility in al Qaeda’s name; the government, however, has been reluctant to blame Osama bin Laden’s terror network, saying the Basque separatist group ETA also was a suspect. ETA denied responsibility.

Speaking at a news conference at the Interior Ministry just after midnight, Mr. Acebes said the videotape was discovered in a trash can after an Arabic-speaking man called a Madrid TV station.

A statement from the ministry said the man in the video was identified as Abu Dujan al Afghani. Mr. Acebes said he had a Moroccan accent and claimed to be the “military spokesman” of al Qaeda in Europe, but was not known to law-enforcement authorities in Spain. He also threatened further attacks.

“This is a response to the crimes that you caused in the world, and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will be more, if God wills it,” he said, according to the translation.

“You love life and we love death, which gives an example of what the prophet Muhammad said. If you don’t stop your injustices, more and more blood will flow and these attacks will seem very small compared to what can occur in what you call terrorism.”

At demonstrations in Spain yesterday, some protesters said they believed the ruling party was playing down the likely link between the bombings and the nation’s role in Iraq, fearing it would hurt the party’s chances in today’s elections.

About 5,000 protested outside the Popular Party’s headquarters in Madrid, holding up signs saying “Peace” and “no more coverup.”

One banner read: “Aznar, because of you, we all pay.”

“Maybe now the truth will come out,” Fernando Hernandez, a college student, said after hearing about the five arrests. “All we want is the truth.”

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Acebes said the five suspects were arrested around Madrid.

A spokesman for the Moroccan government identified the three Moroccans as Jamal Zougam, 30; Mohammed Bekkali, 31, a mechanic; and Mohammed Chaoui, 34. All three are from northern Morocco, but the government gave no further details.

“One might have connections with Moroccan extremist groups. But it is still very early to establish to what degree,” Mr. Acebes said, without naming any group.

The five were arrested after a gym bag packed with explosives and a cell phone was discovered on one of the four bombed rush-hour trains, the minister said.

Those arrested were suspected of being involved in the sale and falsification of the mobile phone and data chip known as SIM found with the unexploded bomb, Reuters news agency quoted Mr. Acebes as saying.

Two Spaniards of Indian origin also were called for questioning, but are not expected to be arrested, he said.

Spanish citizens were among 33 persons killed by suicide bombings that targeted Jewish sites and a Spanish restaurant close to the Spanish Consulate in Casablanca, Morocco, in May 2003.

Those attacks were blamed on Salafia Jihadia, a secretive, radical Islamic group thought by Moroccan authorities to have links to al Qaeda. Twelve suicide bombers also died.

Just months ago, a taped threat thought to be from bin Laden named Spain among countries that could be attacked “at the appropriate time and place.”

Confirmed involvement by Islamic extremists in the Madrid bombings could play into the hands of Aznar critics who opposed sending 1,300 peacekeepers to Iraq.

“If it was al Qaeda, this was a reprisal for sending troops to Iraq, where we have no business being,” said Damian Garcia, whose 86-year-old father died in the bombings.

The government had sought to dampen such speculation. Mr. Acebes said yesterday that autopsies conducted on victims showed no signs of suicide bombings a hallmark of Islamic militants.

Pressure mounted for answers. The crowd outside the Popular Party headquarters chanted, “We want the truth before voting.”

Mr. Aznar’s handpicked candidate to succeed him, Mariano Rajoy, charged that the rally violated a law banning political demonstrations on the day before an election.

“I hereby demand that the organizers of this illegal demonstration end this antidemocratic act of pressure against tomorrow’s elections,” he said.

Hours earlier, the opposition Socialists charged that Mr. Rajoy himself violated the law by urging voters in a newspaper interview to give an absolute majority in parliament.

Mr. Rajoy was only three to five percentage points ahead of Socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero when opinion polls were stopped before the blasts in the final week of campaigning.

The massive police hunt for the bombers focused in part on a stolen van found with seven detonators and an audiotape of verses from the Koran. A witness told Associated Press Television News he saw three suspicious men go from the vehicle to a station where three of the bombed trains originated.

The men wore coverings on their faces believed to be ski masks but “it wasn’t cold. I thought it was very strange,” said the man, who did not want to be named. “They went into the train station. I tried to follow one of them, but I couldn’t because he was very fast.”

The attack’s lethal coordination 10 explosions within 15 minutes pointed to al Qaeda.

The compressed dynamite used, however, is favored by ETA, which has killed more than 800 in four decades of bombings and assassinations to carve out an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain.

ETA attacks never have been as deadly as the Madrid bombings, and mostly targeted police and politicians. On Friday, a caller claiming to represent ETA told a Basque newspaper that the group was not responsible the first time ETA is known to have denied an attack.

The death of a man in a hospital overnight pushed the toll up to 200. Of the 1,511 injured, 266 remained hospitalized with 17 in critical condition.

Since the September 11 attacks 30 months ago in the United States, only the Bali bombing in Indonesia in October 2002 was deadlier, with 202 persons dead. The Madrid attack was the worst act of terrorism ever in Spain and Europe’s deadliest since the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, killed 270.

A steady stream of hearses carried coffins in and out of Madrid’s biggest funeral home, Tanatorio Sur, which was overwhelmed. The coffins of a couple killed in the attacks were placed in a room normally used for staff meetings.

“My son,” an elderly woman repeatedly sobbed, leaning on relatives. “Why?”

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