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The Madrid terror attacks 
Four days that changed Spain
Book hotels of all categories in Madrid online
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Article by Michael Borop, Madrid, added on April 1, 2004

  
March 11th, 7:39 a.m.: the first of ten bombs blow apart four trains carrying commuters from western Madrid to the Atocha train station in the city center. The force of the blasts rips gaping holes in the trains. Ambulances race to the scene, makeshift first-aid centers are set up, and local hospitals are quickly flooded with victims and their families. Passengers and passersby help rescue the injured, while hundreds respond to an urgent appeal for blood donors. It was later revealed that, had the commuter trains not been delayed en route to Madrid, they would have all exploded simultaneously in the Atocha station, causing even more carnage.
 
Spain was in a state of shock. About 200 people were killed and some 1,400 were injured in the Madrid terror attacks. The government of Jose María Aznar announced that rallies would be held around the country on Friday evening to protest the bombings and all the political parties, just three days away from the national elections, agreed to stop campaigning, unite in their condemnation of the attacks, and join the protests. In spite of steady rain, millions of people took to the streets around the country, including an estimated 2.3 million in Madrid and over a million in Barcelona.
 
Who was behind the train bombings of March 11? The government immediately pointed to the Basque separatist and terrorist organization ETA, which has killed over 800 people since its creation in 1959. Just a few hours after the attack, Interior Minister Ángel Acebes said there was "no doubt" that ETA was behind the attack. He went on to say that those who thought the attack was carried out by Islamic terrorists were "trying to divert attention away from those responsible" for the carnage in a "miserable attempt to (...) confuse people". Indeed, just a couple of weeks earlier, the police intercepted a van carrying over 500 kg of explosives and arrested two members of ETA who were planning to place bombs in Madrid. The police had also foiled two large-scale bombings in the past year and a half. To further its argument, the government claimed that the bombs were made with titadine, commonly used by ETA, though that information later turned out to be false.
 
There were many reasons to question ETA's responsibility in the Madrid terror attacks. The Basque terrorists usually selectively assassinate politicians, policemen, military personnel, and entrepreneurs - they rarely resort to indiscriminate attacks. (It must be said, however, that ETA's deadliest action was an attack against civilians at a Barcelona shopping center in 1987, which killed 21 people; ETA later apologized for it). The Madrid train bombing was much more massive and coordinated than any previous attack by ETA. Shortly after the massacre, a Basque newspaper received a call allegedly from ETA denying its involvement in the Madrid bombings.
 
As the investigation progressed, more and more evidence pointed towards a radical Islamic connection. But rather than adopting a cautious position until the investigation had more concrete evidence, the government continued to accuse ETA. The UN Security Council issued a resolution condemning the Madrid bombings and, at the insistence of Aznar's government, specifically blamed the Basque terrorists. Given the lack of facts to back up that claim, the Socialists (PSOE) and other opposition parties saw this as political maneuvering by the ruling Popular Party (PP), just hours before the election. The PP was viewed by many as the most firm opponent of ETA, and if they were behind the attack, the PP could expect a boost in Sunday's elections. But if Al Qaeda or other Islamic fanatics were responsible, that could tip the balance the other way, since Aznar's support of Bush and the Iraq war was very unpopular (over 90% of Spaniards were opposed).
 
The night before the election was tumultuous. First, the government announced the arrest of three Moroccans and two Indians and then, a few hours later, revealed that the authorities had a video in which the alleged military spokesman for Al Qaeda in Europe took responsibility for the attacks. Text messages sent to cell phones called on people to protest in front of PP offices around the country and thousands turned out to accuse the ruling party of lying and trying to influence the election. The PP candidate for prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, went on television to call for the protests to stop. In effect, according to Spanish law, no political declarations, rallies, or protests may take place the day before an election and the federal election commission ordered the protests to be broken up. It has not been clarified who was behind the text messages and the "spontaneous" rallies, but if a political party was involved, it would be a serious charge. Conservatives accused the PSOE and the far-left IU party, but no proof of their involvement has been presented as yet.

To Part 2 of the article: The Spanish elections 2004.
 


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