In Spain, police defuse bomb hidden on high-speed rail line

Discovery halted travel, unnerved public, reeling after deadly Madrid blasts

April 03, 2004|By Cristina Mateo-Yanguas and Tracy Wilkinson | Cristina Mateo-Yanguas and Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain - Spanish authorities averted potential disaster yesterday when they dismantled a bomb on the Madrid-Seville bullet train track, a discovery that sent shudders through a public still reeling from train bombings 22 days ago that killed 191 people.

The incident paralyzed much of Spain's heavily used train system just as millions of Spaniards were heading into Holy Week holidays, which officially began yesterday. Trains and passengers were stranded in stations from Madrid to the provinces while police searched for additional explosives.

The discovery of the bomb raised the specter of a sustained campaign by extremists far more deadly than anything Spain has seen. In Istanbul, Turkey, similar bombings on Nov. 15 that killed and wounded dozens of people were followed five days later by an even bloodier attack.

No other bombs were found in sweeps of the railways yesterday. Spain said it would deploy its army, helicopters, sniffer dogs and police to guard the train network.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes revealed the discovery of the bomb at a news conference in which he also announced the arrest in France of a senior leader of the Basque separatist organization ETA. Acebes did not say that the ETA leader's arrest was linked to the discovered bomb.

On March 11, 10 bombs left in backpacks and rigged to cell phones ripped through four crowded commuter trains within minutes of each other during morning rush hour. More than 1,800 people were injured, and the ruling party fell in elections three days later, in part because of voter anger over the bombings and the government's handling of the investigation.

Members of the new Socialist-dominated parliament elected in the vote were installed yesterday in a ceremony overshadowed by the defused bomb and the ensuing railway havoc.

Two law enforcement officials told the Los Angeles Times that investigators are focusing on the same network now blamed for last month's massacre: a group of mostly Moroccan extremists with ties to al-Qaida.

"It appears to be Islamic terrorism," one senior official said. "We are investigating in that direction."

Six alleged members of the Moroccan group, including its purported leader, Tunisian national Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, remain at large. Spanish authorities issued international arrest warrants for the six this week and said they think the suspects have probably fled. A total of 14 people, 10 of them Moroccan, are in custody and charged with participation in the planning or execution of the attacks or aiding the attackers.

The bomb found yesterday underneath the bullet line 40 miles south of Madrid consisted of about 24 pounds of explosive, concealed in a plastic shopping bag with a 450-foot cable leading to a detonator, Acebes said. A railway worker spotted a suspicious package and called police who alerted a bomb squad.

Acebes said the explosive material appeared to be the same as the one used in the March 11 attacks. But the device lacked an initiator, such as a cellular telephone or other trigger, he said. Investigators think the person or persons who planted the bomb were probably startled and left before finishing.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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