Terrorists Hit Madrid Trains

IN THE rain-soaked streets of cities, towns and villages, they gathered in silence to mourn their dead and despair for the world we live in. Millions of Spaniards from all walks of life, shocked and sickened by a brutal terrorist attack that left close to 200 dead and over 1,400 wounded. A country united in grief and anger, and wondering where to place the blame.

The 10 almost simultaneous bombings of Madrid commuter trains last Thursday were designed to create maximum havoc. Knapsacks, each stuffed with 10 kg of explosives, were strategically placed in the passenger cars of four packed trains, timed to go off at the height of the morning rush hour. The force of the blasts crumpled rail cars like pop cans, and scattered burned and twisted bodies alongside the tracks. Hospitals overflowed with the wounded, and a convention centre became a temporary morgue. Traumatized rescue workers gathered body parts and told of the haunting sound of ringing cellphones as families tried in vain to reach victims. Investigators said it could have been worse - three other bombs failed to go off.

With the attacks coming just three days before Spaniards were set to go to the polls in a general election, suspicion immediately turned to ETA, a Basque separatist group that has waged war with the government since 1958, killing close to 800 people and wounding thousands more. Last Christmas Eve, police foiled a similar plot to detonate three bombs on a Madrid-bound train when they arrested a suspect in the Basque city of San Sebastián. On Feb. 29, security forces stopped two suspected ETA members driving a van on the highway outside of the Spanish capital, and discovered 500 kg of explosives. But at week's end there was no claim of responsibility by ETA for the Madrid blasts, and Basque politicians denied any involvement by the separatist group. Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens of the northern region joined in the mourning and demonstrations against the attacks.

In the hours after the bombings, the waters were further muddied by the discovery of a stolen van, containing seven detonators and a tape of verses from the Koran, in a Madrid suburb close to where the commuter trains originated. A group purporting to have links to al-Qaeda sent an e-mail to an Arabic-language newspaper in London, claiming it was behind the attacks. Spain's outgoing Prime Minister José María Aznar has been a strong supporter of George W. Bush's Mideast policy, and his country currently has 1,300 troops stationed in Iraq. Last October, an audiotape reportedly made by Osama bin Laden threatened Spain with retribution for its role in the war on terror.

Regardless of who was behind the attacks, Spain finds itself with a new benchmark for horror. "March 11, 2004, now holds its place in the history of infamy," Aznar said last week. The list of nations with tragic anniversaries continues to grow.

See also TERRORISM.

Maclean's March 22, 2004