5 more suspects arrested in Spain train bombings

One believed to have prime role in attacks also linked to Morocco attack

March 19, 2004|By Michael Martinez | Michael Martinez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MADRID - Intensifying an investigation into the March 11 train bombings that claimed 202 lives, Spanish authorities arrested five more suspects yesterday, bringing the total to 11, while the first five suspects arrested over the weekend appeared in court before a magistrate.

An 11th man, an Algerian who gave statements to authorities indicating foreknowledge of the attack, was arrested in northern Spain last week and brought to Madrid for questioning Wednesday, authorities said.

Of the five newly arrested suspects, one is believed to have had a prime role in the morning rush-hour train attacks that also injured 1,750 people, and he may have also been involved in last year's Casablanca bombing that killed dozens, state radio said.

That alleged link is another indication that both bombings are connected and involve militant Moroccan Islamists, possibly connected to al-Qaida, Spanish authorities say.

The newly arrested are three Moroccans, another Arab and a suspect with Spanish citizenship, officials said.

Four of the five new arrests were made in Alcala de Henares and nearby Meco, which are about 20 miles east of Madrid, officials told local media. Alcala was the city where three of the four bombed trains originated and was also the place where police found a stolen van with detonators and an audio tape of Quran verses just hours after the bombings.

The fifth suspect was arrested in Oviedo, investigators told radio Cadena Ser, which is closely aligned with the Socialist Party that won Sunday's elections and ousted the Popular Party.

Also yesterday, the Popular Party government released intelligence reports about last week's train bombings in an effort to demonstrate that it was sincere in its initial assertions that the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible for the attacks.

"We have suffered a campaign of defamation, insinuations and even lies, the sole aim of which was to discredit the government and make it look like a liar and a manipulator," said government spokesman Eduardo Zaplana.

Many Spanish voters said Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's reluctance to consider Islamic radicals first as the attackers was an egregious sign of playing politics with an atrocity in the days before Sunday's election. Analysts believed that if ETA was blamed it would help the Popular Party, which led a crackdown on the Basque group.

Aznar and his Cabinet eventually backed away from its ETA assertions the night before elections, when al-Qaida's European spokesman took responsibility in a videotape.

The five suspects arrested over the weekend appeared in the country's high court before Judge Juan del Olmo, who had ordered their arrests. The hearing was to determine whether strong evidence existed for the three Moroccans and two Indians to remain in custody.

At the same time, another judge, Baltasar Garzon, who has been leading an investigation into Spain's al-Qaida cell and its ties to the Sept. 11 attacks, was scheduled yesterday to question the alleged cell leader, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, who has been held by Spanish authorities since November 2001.

One Yarkas follower is Jamal Zougam, a Moroccan who was among the five weekend arrests. According to pre-Sept. 11 surveillance revealed in court documents, Zougam contacted Yarkas on Sept. 5, 2001, to announce his arrival in Madrid from Morocco.

In the recent March 11 attacks, Zougam has been identified by witnesses as being on one of the bombed trains, according to authorities.

Judicial sources told El Mundo newspaper that Yarkas said in court yesterday that he bought cucumbers and zucchini from a produce store run by Zougam in the Lavapies neighborhood of Madrid, where Zougam lived at the time of his arrest.

Meanwhile, a 22-year-old Peruvian woman succumbed to her wounds yesterday, increasing the toll in the attacks to 202 - the same number killed by bombings in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002.

A week after the bombings, many in Madrid were still in shock. At Atocha station, where two of the four trains were bombed, passengers paused and stood in silence yesterday at makeshift memorials. "What happened in Iraq's war zone happened in Madrid," said Ulpiano Calderon, who helped recover bodies and survivors. "The sounds that people made - the breathing, the cries. ... I don't remember what I did, but I remember the sounds."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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