Analysis: Massacre in Madrid

By ROLAND FLAMINI, Chief International Correspondent  |  March 11, 2004 at 10:40 AM
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It's being called the worst terrorist attack in Western Europe since World War II, but the question is -- who is responsible?

Coordinated bomb blasts in Madrid early Thursday that have so far claimed 192 dead plus another 593 wounded were immediately blamed on ETA, the Basque terror group -- a charge quickly denied by political sources with ties to ETA, who in turn said it was the work of "Arab terrorists."

Thirteen explosions ripped through three commuter trains in the Spanish capital's main stations. At that early hour of 7:30 a.m., the victims were mostly blue-collar workers and college students.

As ambulances and police sped to the stricken stations -- the big, modern Atocha complex, Santa Eugenia, and El Pozo, all in the metropolitan area -- the news spread, and Spaniards were stunned by the extent of the devastation.

Shocking television images that spared none of the gory details showed rescue workers pulling victims and bodies out of the twisted wreckage of the trains. Across the city, cell phones failed to function because of overloaded circuits as people tried in vain to contact relations and friends.

In reponse to a public appeal for blood donors, crowds gathered outside the high school near Atocha station requisitioned to serve as a makeshift first aid post and at the main hospitals.

The attack shatters the calm of an election campaign that ends Sunday, when 35 million Spaniards are due to go to the polls to elect a new government. Political campaigning was immediately suspended, and there was some speculation that the election itself would be postponed.

The irony is that for the first time in years ETA terrorism had been a minor campaign issue because many of its leaders and key strategists had been arrested, and political analysts were saying that it had lost a lot of its earlier menace.

The immediate reaction of observers was that Thursday's attack strengthened the position of the ruling conservative Popular Party. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had taken a tough stance against ETA from the start, and there was no reason to believe that his successor, Mariano Rajoy, would relax that hard-line policy. The opposition Socialists, on the other hand, do not have the same reputation for toughness against ETA, which had gained strength in the 1980s when PSOE, the Socialist Party, was in power.

If separatist terrorism had declined as an election issue, regionalism had increased. Everywhere Spanish regions were seeking more independence from the central government in Madrid. But it was a strong central government that had created a climate of greater security with its vigorous attack on the terrorist menace.

A spokesman from the Basque political party Batasuna,Arnaldo Ortegi said Thursday that he did not believe that ETA was responsible for the attacks. Batasuna, which wants more autonomy for the region, was outlawed last year because of its alleged close ties to ETA.

Minister of Interior Angel Acebes, however, said there was "no doubt" that ETA had "perpetrated this massacre." A Spanish police source told United Press International that, with no one claiming responsibility, ETA was still the likliest suspect, "but with help." He did not think ETA had the resources and expertise to stage the multiple attack on its own, but could have been helped by another terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Aznar, appearing on television to condemn the attack, did not specifically blame ETA.

The Spanish government has also been vigorous in going after alleged al-Qaida members. Since the devastating Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, more than 50 alleged al-Qaida activists have been arrested, including five people a year ago who were said to have laundered money for Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, condemnations of the attack have come thick and fast from Pope John Paul II, French President Jacques Chirac, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and many other world leaders.

By mid-afternoon cars equipped with loudspeakers were going through the streets of Madrid urging people to join in a government-sponsored mass demonstration against the attack Friday at 7 p.m.

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