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Bombs Blamed on Basque Separatists

January 21, 2000

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ Hopes for an end to Basque separatist violence in Spain vanished Friday when two car bombs exploded in a Madrid neighborhood, killing an army officer and ending a 19-month lull in such attacks.

Police immediately blamed the bombings on the Basque separatist group ETA, which ended a cease-fire last month after failing to win government concessions. Investigators said the attacks had all the hallmarks of the ETA.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, police reported last month that they had intercepted two ETA-linked cars carrying 3,300 pounds of explosives to Madrid. The group often waits weeks before claiming responsibility for an attack. The last attack attributed to the ETA was the killing of a governing party official on June 25, 1998.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar condemned Friday’s attack and vowed the government would not yield in its fight against ETA.

``When ETA announced it was ending the pause in its terrorist activity, I said ETA was making a mistake,″ Aznar said in a television broadcast. ``Now is the time to show ETA the consequences of its error.″

As darkness fell, more than 3,000 people gathered in downtown Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza to protest the bombings. The rally was supposed to start with a silent vigil, but there were spontaneous outbursts as some in the crowd shouted ``ETA are murderers!″ and ``We want justice!″ Protesters carried banners that read, ``Basques, yes; ETA, no``.

Less than a week ago, tens of thousands of Basque citizens in Bilbao attended the latest in a series of rallies to demand that the ETA not break the cease-fire. Many Basques want more autonomy, but oppose the ETA’s methods and wanted talks to continue.

The nationalist president of the Basque country, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, condemned Friday’s bombings. He called for Basques to hold vigils Friday night in the Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian.

``I express my most complete, unequivocal condemnation of the crime,″ Ibarretxe said. ``Unfortunately ETA ignored once again the call of Basque society that has shown itself overwhelmingly in favor of peace.″

The first car blew up shortly after 8 a.m. outside an apartment building in a neighborhood full of military families. About 30 minutes after police and rescue workers arrived, a second car exploded about 400 yards away.

``I am very angry,″ said Josefa Espinoza, 65, who works in a nearby bakery. ``I had a bad feeling that the people of this neighborhood were going to be the first victims.″

National Police chief Juan Cotino said the car bombs were set off by remote-control and that the victim, Col. Pedro Antonio Blanco Garcia, 47, was the target. He worked in the economic section of army headquarters in Madrid and was married with two children.

Defense Minister Eduardo Serra visited the officer’s wife, who reportedly learned of her husband’s death by watching television news with her son.

``I came to express my solidarity with the widow,″ said Serra. ``She is as can be expected after a killing like this.″

Three people were treated for shock after the bombings, and a 14-year-old girl suffered cuts.

``We are not surprised that it happened, but we are surprised by the date and the location,″ Madrid Mayor Jose Maria Alvarez Del Manzano said at the scene, noting the widely held fear that the ETA was planning attacks in Madrid.

The ETA wants to establish a Basque nation in northern Spain and southern France, where the Basques have a separate language and cultural identity. The group’s initials stand for the Basque words for Basque Homeland and Freedom. In its campaign for independence, the ETA has killed nearly 800 people since 1968.

Aznar himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 1995. After his conservative Popular Party came to power in 1996, the ETA changed strategy and began targeting the party’s town councilors.

The ETA called a cease-fire in September 1998, ushering in a peace process that many Spaniards saw as the best chance yet to end the conflict. But while the government wanted peace talks limited to disarmament and possible early releases or lenient treatment for some 500 ETA suspects in Spanish jails, the ETA demanded substantive negotiations on establishing a separate Basque nation.

The government has said it will not negotiate with the group until the organization renounces violence. On Dec. 3, the ETA declared the end of a 14-month truce, citing lack of progress in the talks.

Spain received condolences from several European governments Friday, in messages that uniformly condemned the bombings.

In Paris, the French government noted that it has traditionally worked with Spain to root out ETA operatives that seek refuge in southern France. ``It’s clear, now more than ever, that cooperation between our two countries is indispensable,″ Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne Gazeau-Secret said.

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