Bombs rip Spanish trains

At least 190 dead, 1,200 are injured

10 blasts in 15 minutes shatter rail cars full of morning commuters

Basques, al-Qaida are suspects

Madrid Train Bombings

March 12, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MADRID, Spain - In one of the deadliest attacks in modern European history, 10 bombs exploded yesterday in this city's train system with the most destructive possible timing, blasting apart cars filled with morning commuters, killing at least 190 people and injuring more than 1,200 others, many of them critically.

Authorities initially blamed the violence on Basque separatists in the militant ETA, but a London-based Arabic newspaper said last night that it had been contacted on behalf of al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Although Spain sent no troops to fight in Iraq, it publicly supported the invasion by the United States and Britain and later sent about 1,500 peacekeepers to the region.

Spain's Interior Ministry, responsible for internal security, said last night that police searching a van in a parking lot near where the bombed trains originated found explosive detonators and an audiotape of verses from the Quran. Spanish officials appeared to be qualifying their early certainty that ETA was responsible but said evidence still points to the group rather than al-Qaida.

Spanish security forces were not ruling out "any line of investigation," Interior Minister Angel Acebes said.

All day and into the night, people gathered near the main Atocha train station, where the deadliest of the blasts ripped holes through the coaches, lifted them off their tracks and left them mangled and smoldering.

Passengers ran, limped or were dragged or carried from the scene, and people with bloodied heads and faces and hands were tended as they sat on curbs, in many cases being helped by others who appeared almost as badly injured.

Minus the thick black smoke and dust, the scenes were strikingly similar to those beamed to the world from New York after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Death, devastation

Among the other scenes: a lifeless body sprawled next to twisted tracks, another face down on a sewer, one person, then another and then another - these people who had been heading to work - lined side by side in black body bags and then carried to ambulances lining up less than a block from the Prado Museum. Men and women and children screaming with their hands holding their heads.

Shoes and briefcases and purses lost or abandoned on steps leading from train platforms to the street. Cell phones ringing, unanswered. Firefighters, rescue workers swarming.

"This is mass murder," said Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Later he added: "March 11 now has its place in the history of infamy."

Aznar, nearly killed in a 1995 car bombing blamed on ETA, originally blamed the attack on its members, who have long used bombs in their fight for an independent Basque state but never on yesterday's scale.

Spain is scheduled to hold national elections Sunday, several members of ETA have been arrested around Madrid in recent weeks and attention focused on the group even before the last bodies were removed from the cars and tracks.

Dynamite in backpacks

The attacks underlined how relatively crude weapons can be used to strike virtually anywhere. Authorities said the explosions came from a form of dynamite stuffed into backpacks that were left in the trains or on platforms at three stations.

The bombs struck two trains at the Atocha terminal, a mammoth hub for subway, commuter and long-distance trains. In all, 10 bombs exploded within 15 minutes on the commuter line running from Santa Eugenia to Atocha, the first going off about 7:40 a.m. local time, according to Acebes, the interior minister.

A double-decker train at the El Pozo station, about six miles from Atocha, had both sides ripped out of two of its cars and its roof blown nearly off. Three other bombs, found before they exploded, were destroyed.

The death toll, nearly certain to rise, made it the worst attack of its kind in Europe since the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270.

"This is for the people who died," said Alberto Gil Ortega, 21, in Atocha with a Spanish flag to hang on a fence. "They were Spanish, we are Spanish, so we must remember them."

The London-based Arabic newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, said its office received a five-page e-mail claiming responsibility for the train bombings in the name of al-Qaida.

Signed by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, it said the brigade's "death squad" had penetrated "one of the pillars of the crusade alliance, Spain." The name is from the alias of Mohammed Atef, an Osama bin Laden deputy who is believed to have been killed in a 2001 U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan.

"This is part of settling old accounts with Spain, the crusader, and America's ally in its war against Islam," the claim said.

Days of mourning

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