- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

From combined dispatches

MADRID — The Basque separatist group ETA, initially suspected in the terrorist attacks that killed almost 200 people, yesterday appeared ready to announce a unilateral cease-fire designed to win political concessions for the region in northern Spain.

ETA issued a statement during the weekend proposing dialogue with the incoming socialist government. Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose victory in the elections this month stemmed in part from public anger over the attacks in Madrid, said ETA must first abandon violence.

Spanish authorities yesterday revised the death toll in the March 11 train bombings to 190 from 202, saying there had been errors in counting and identifying the mutilated bodies. More than 1,800 people were injured.

Authorities also confirmed that there was no evidence that a suicide bomber had been involved.

Spain is holding 13 suspects, including 10 Moroccans.

World leaders were scheduled to converge in the Spanish capital to attend a state funeral in honor of the victims.

One of ETA’s founders said late Monday that he expected that the group soon would call a halt to its campaign of bombings and killings that has marked its bid for independence, which dates from the 1960s. “I have the impression that in a very short time — in coming days, or coming weeks — that ETA will declare a cease-fire,” Julen Madariaga said by telephone from southern France, where he lives.

The government of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar initially blamed the ETA for the bombings. The group denied involvement. Investigators now are focusing on an Islamic group with presumed ties to al Qaeda.

For their part, the socialists are looking for a way to end Basque separatist violence.

The attacks contributed to a backlash against the center-right government of Mr. Aznar, who stood shoulder to shoulder with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush over the war in Iraq despite overwhelming public opposition.

Mr. Blair and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in Madrid for the memorial service, were expected to push Mr. Zapatero to reconsider his pre-election promise to withdraw Spain’s troops from Iraq.

Mr. Zapatero’s vow to withdraw from Iraq if the United Nations does not take over by June 30 sent London and Washington in search of a U.N. resolution to satisfy him.

Militarily, Spain’s contribution to Iraq is small, but its political significance is great. Spain’s withdrawal could make it more difficult for countries such as Britain, Poland and Denmark to justify their involvement to a skeptical public.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday that abandoning Iraq would appease “al Qaeda and its associates.”

Meanwhile, the Spanish Interior Ministry revised the death toll in the attacks. Body parts contained in 13 bags originally were thought to be from unidentified dead, but DNA tests showed that the remains belonged to people already included in the death toll or to survivors who lost limbs in the blasts, said ministry spokesman Richard Ibanez.

ETA’s most recent cease-fire lasted 18 months. It ended in January 2000 after a round of talks with the government went nowhere.

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