Millions in Spain protest attacks

`Peace! Peace! Peace!' is cry of marchers throughout nation

`We'll never let them win'

Madrid Train Bombings

March 13, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MADRID, Spain - The worst peacetime attack in modern Spanish history was answered yesterday with the largest demonstration the country has ever held, as more than 2 million people took to the streets of Madrid to protest violence and show their unity in the quest for peace.

In all, an estimated 8 million people - about one-fifth of Spain's population - participated in demonstrations, with huge crowds from Barcelona to Seville, from the Basque country of the north to the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, as the government sought to determine who was responsible for the train bombings that killed nearly 200 people.

In Madrid, enormous crowds of people showed up despite a driving downpour, and from above they appeared as a sea of colorful umbrellas and sheltered candles. Demonstrators crowded the Gran Via and other boulevards, surrounded the elaborate fountains outside the Prado Museum, filled the great squares of Plaza del Sol and Colon and created a wall of humanity outside the Atocha train station, where bombs exploded Thursday in cars packed with rush-hour commuters.

"A people united will never be defeated!" the demonstrators chanted in the streets, at other times yelling in unison, "No more terrorism! Peace! Peace! Peace!"

For all the strong feelings, there were few calls for vengeance, few banners even mentioning the two groups most often mentioned as suspects in the attacks, the Basque separatist group ETA and al-Qaida.

One reason may be that authorities gave no indication yesterday that they were any closer to determining who exploded 10 bombs on three trains and stations Thursday.

The death toll rose to 199 yesterday. Authorities said the latest death was a 7-month-old girl. More than 1,400 people were injured and about 400 remain hospitalized, many of them listed in critical condition.

On Thursday, a group claiming to work on behalf of al-Qaida took credit for the bombings. The ETA formally denied responsibility for the attack yesterday. But Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said he is not sure if either group is telling the truth.

"I'm not going to play Lotto," Aznar said angrily during a morning news conference, where he was asked to speculate on who might be responsible. "We can't talk of probabilities. The government is not going to play with hypotheses."

The respected Spanish newspaper El Pais, quoting unidentified police investigators, reported that between 12 and 30 people may have taken part in the attacks, scattering the bombs in three trains and on platforms at one, and possibly two, train stations. The newspaper reported that two men were seen entering a train shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday and then running away.

The investigators told El Pais that the attacks did not seem to follow the usual pattern of ETA attacks, which tend to be much smaller in scale and are often preceded by telephoned warnings.

At his news conference, Aznar defended himself and his interior minister, who said shortly after the attacks that ETA was "undoubtedly" behind the bombings.

The prime minister also said he has kept the public informed of the investigation, including releasing information that explosives detonators and verses from the Quran were found in a van discovered near a station where the doomed trains originated.

National elections are scheduled for tomorrow, and political analysts say connecting ETA with the explosions would help Aznar's political party and hand-picked successor because he has lead a crackdown on the group. An al-Qaida connection, they say, could be damaging because of his government's support of the war in Iraq.

The prime minister noted recent ETA attempts to bomb targets in Madrid. One plot, he said, was to bomb trains on Christmas Eve. Two weeks ago, police arrested two suspected ETA members driving a van laden with 1,100 pounds of explosives materials.

"Isn't it reasonable to think that group would be the culprits?" Aznar said.

There was no need for speculation on the streets of Spain. The demonstrators made their message clear: Violence will not defeat them.

The country paused at noon for 10 minutes of silence. In Madrid, cars pulled to the side of the road. Buses stopped in their tracks. People at makeshift memorials all over the city went silent. Construction workers near Plaza de Espana put their tools down and removed their hard hats. Workers and customers spilled out of stores and cafes and onto the sidewalks and streets.

When the 10 minutes ended, many people began applauding. As on Thursday, there was no shortage of tears.

It was the evening protest, though, that brought the record numbers together in one cause. Police had estimated that perhaps 1 million people would march in Madrid. By 10 p.m. they said more than double that number - 2.3 million - had turned out.

Aznar led the demonstration, joined by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin of France and Romano Prodi, president of the European Union's executive arm. Also marching were Prince Felipe of Spain and his sister Christine.

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