173 people killed in Madrid explosions
Huge terrorist bombs rocked three Madrid train stations at the height of the morning rush hour Thursday, killing 173 people and wounding at least 500 just three days before general elections. Officials blamed Basque separatists for the worst terror attack in Spanish history.
"This is a massacre," government spokesman Eduardo Zaplana said.
Two bombs exploded around 7:30 a.m. local time in a commuter train arriving at Atocha station, a bustling hub for subway, commuter and long-distance trains in Spain's capital. Blasts also rocked trains or platforms at two stations on a commuter line leading to Atocha.
People in tears streamed away from the station as rescue workers carried bodies covered in sheets of gold fabric. People with bloodied faces sat on curbs, using cellphones to tell loved ones they were alive. Hospitals appealed for blood donations. Buses had to be pressed into service as ambulances.
Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said there were indications the armed Basque separatist group ETA was to blame.
"Right now we have to wait until we have an official statement. We don't have this official statement, so we just can say there are some hints and indications that point toward ETA," Palacio told the BBC.
Earlier, other politicians and media widely blamed ETA.
A top Basque politician denied the separatists responsibility and blamed "Arab resistance." Many al-Qaida linked terrorists were captured in, or believed to have operated out of, Spain.
Arnold Otegi, leader of Batasuna, an outlawed Basque party linked to the armed separatist group, denied it was behind the blasts and suggested "Arab resistance" elements were responsible, suggesting al-Qaida.
Otegi told Radio Popular in San Sebastian that ETA always phones in warnings before it attacks. The interior minister said there was no warning before Thursday's attack.
"The modus operandi, the high number of victims and the way it was carried out make me think, and I have a hypothesis in mind, that yes it may have been an operative cell from the Arab resistance," Otegi said. Otegi noted that Spain's government backed the Iraq war.
Until the latest attack, ETA had been blamed for more than 800 deaths in its decades-old campaign to carve an independent Basque homeland out of territory straddling northern Spain and southwest France.
On Feb. 29, police intercepted a Madrid-bound van packed with more than 1,100 pounds of explosives, and blamed ETA. On Christmas Eve, police thwarted an attempted bombing at Chamartin, another Madrid rail station, and arrested two suspected ETA members.
The Spanish national police said more than 170 people were killed and more than 500 were injured.
The toll would make Thursday the deadliest day ever in decades of attacks by ETA. Until now, the highest death toll was 21 killed in a supermarket blast in Barcelona in 1987.
The attacks traumatized Spain on the eve of Sunday's general election.
The campaign was largely dominated by separatist tensions in regions like the Basque country, with both the ruling conservative Popular Party and the opposition Socialists ruling out talks with ETA.
But the Socialists came in for withering criticism because a politician linked to the Socialist-run government in the Catalonia region, which also has separatist sentiment, admitted meeting with ETA members in France in January. The Socialists were lambasted as allegedly undermining Spain's fight against ETA.
Rescue workers were overwhelmed, said Enrique Sanchez, an ambulance driver who went to Santa Eugenia station, about six miles southeast of Atocha station.
"There was one carriage totally blown apart. People were scattered all over the platforms. I saw legs and arms. I won't forget this ever. I've seen horror."
Shards of twisted metal were scattered by rails in the Atocha station at the spot where an explosion severed a train in two.
"I saw many things explode in the air, I don't know, it was horrible," said Juani Fernandez, 50, a civil servant who was on the platform waiting to go to work.
"People started to scream and run, some bumping into each other and as we ran there was another explosion. I saw people with blood pouring from them, people on the ground," Fernandez said.
Spanish officials had said ETA was against the ropes following the arrest last year of more than 150 members or collaborators in Spain and France, including the leaders of ETA's commando network. Last year ETA killed three people, compared to 23 in 2000 and 15 in 2001.
No arrests were reported Thursday.
"Those responsible for this tragedy will be arrested and they will pay very dearly for it," Acebes said at Atocha.
The government convened anti-ETA rallies nationwide for Friday evening and announced three days of mourning.
"What a horror," said the Basque regional president, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, who insisted ETA does not represent the Basque people. "When ETA attacks, the Basque heart breaks into a thousand pieces," he said in the Basque capital Vitoria.
"This is one of those days that you don't want to live through," said opposition Socialist party spokesman Jesus Caldera. "ETA must be defeated," referring to the group as "those terrorists, those animals."
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called the attacks terrorist atrocities and a "disgusting assault on the very principle of European democracy."
Straw said that Britain stood "shoulder to shoulder" with Spain and was ready to send any kind of material help needed.
Elsewhere, European Parliament President Pat Cox said the bomb attacks amounted to "a declaration of war on democracy."
"No more bombs, no more dead," Cox said in Spanish before a hushed legislature in Strasbourg, France. "It is an outrageous, unjustified and unjustifiable attack on the Spanish people and Spanish democracy."