SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain -- A hooded Basque gunman Thursday assassinated a Socialist candidate for the regional parliament, three days before the hotly contested Basque elections, police said.
The killing of Enrique Casas Vila, 40, near the end of an increasingly violent campaign, was believed to be the first murder of an election candidate in Spain since before the 1936-39 civil war.
Casas, a nuclear physicist who sat in the national senate as well as the Basque parliament, was hit at least seven times by submachine gun fire inside his San Sebastian home while his 17-year-old son Richard looked on helplessly.
Secretary general of the Socialist Party for the province of Guipuzcoa, Cosas was found lying on his bed with bullet wounds in the face, throat and chest, police said. He was married and had three children.
A previously unknown group calling itself 'Mendeku' -- meaning vengeance in the Basque language -- took responsibility for the attack in telephone calls to Basque news media.
But police and Socialist officials said they were certain the group was a cover for the separatist group ETA, an acronym for Basque Land and Liberty, which has carried on a 15-year terrorist campaign for Basque secession.
They said the attack might have been linked to a recent ETA threat to retaliate for the assassinations by rightist hit squads of several of its members living in southern France.
All political parties including Herri Batasuna suspended their campaigns and condemned the killing, and major unions called for a 24-hour general strike in the region to protest the attack.
ETA and its political arm, Herri Batasuna, claim Spain's socialist government supports the shadowy hit squads in a 'dirty war' against the terrorists.
Socialist party spokesman Pedro Bofill said in Madrid the party would not be intimidated by the murder.
'ETA should know that this vile murder will not frighten us Socialists,' said Bofill, adding that they 'will continue fighting for democracy in the Basque country.
The Socialists, Communists and some regional parties immediately suspended their campaigns on learning of the killing.
Earlier in the week, Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez abruptly canceled plans to campaign this weekend in the Basque provinces amid speculation it would be too dangerous.
Police said Casas' assailant, who according to some reports entered the apartment when the candidate's son answered the door, escaped with an accomplice who was waiting in a red sedan. Police said the car had been stolen at gunpoint several hours earlier.
About 300 yards from the house, the two attackers abandoned the car and commandeered a taxi at gunpoint, leaving its driver unharmed, and fled, police said.
Casas was at the top of the Socialist party's provincial candidates list. He had been appointed to the Basque parliament in December 1982 and was one of three deputies named to represent the Basque region in the national senate.