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190 killed in Madrid serial blasts

By Vaiju Naravane

Train coaches damaged when explosions rocked the Atocha railway station in Madrid on Thursday. - AP

MADRID, MARCH 11. About 190 people were killed and over 1,000 injured in a series of bomb explosions in three railway stations in the Spanish capital, Madrid, during the commuter rush hour this morning. This is the worst terrorist attack ever to take place on Spanish soil and comes just two days before legislative elections in the country. The toll is expected to rise further.

The near-simultaneous blasts were so powerful that they ripped through railway wagons, leaving scattered body parts and mangled metal in their wake. The explosives were placed in crowded commuter trains and the empty wagon of an express train. A total of 13 bombs were planted. Of these, 10 went off while three others were detonated by police.

An ambulance driver said he had seen "scenes of butchery" while other paramedics said they had seen "glimpses of hell."

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Spanish Government accused the Basque separatist organisation, ETA, which has been waging an independence struggle for the last 35 years. Batasuna, ETA's political wing, denied it had anything to do with the blasts.

Arnaldo Otegi, spokesman of the banned Batasuna Party, said: "Neither the targets hit nor the modus operandi suggest that ETA was behind this. The pro-independence Basque left wishes to show its total rejection of what happened today in Madrid and of the blind actions carried out against civilians and workers on their way to their workplaces." The ETA, for its part, blamed "Arab resistance" for the attack.

At the end of last month, police stopped a Madrid-bound lorry that was packed with over 500 kg of explosives. Two men who were arrested were described as ETA operatives. The Government claimed that it had foiled several planned ETA attacks against Madrid trains last Christmas.

Madrid was gripped by anger, shock and fear as scenes of carnage were immediately flashed across television screens. The continuous wail of ambulance sirens rent the air and massive traffic jams built up around the city as police tried desperately to re-direct traffic to allow the injured to be taken to hospital.

The scene outside Madrid's Gregorio Maranon Hospital was one of confusion, chaos, anger and grief. Hundreds of relatives milled around, anxious for news of their loved ones, sometimes hampering the work of paramedics bringing scores of injured. Medical teams set up field hospitals in what can only be described as war zones. The central Atocha station was cordoned off and a senior judge has been named to head an inquiry into the bloodiest terrorist attack in Spain's memory.

The Spanish Prime Minister, Josť Maria Aznar, described the attacks as "mass murder" and promised action. Referring to the perpetrators as "terrorists," Mr. Aznar said they had attacked democracy itself. He said the Spanish state would hunt down and punish those responsible and called upon the people to hold mass demonstrations on Friday evening to express their anger and grief.

Spain has declared a three-day official mourning and political parties have decided to suspend election campaign. The Spanish Cabinet, in an emergency meeting today, decided to go ahead with the elections. Several pre-Olympic qualifying matches will also go ahead as scheduled, it was announced.

Though the Spanish Government was quick to condemn ETA, experts said there were too many factors indicating that a more powerful and better-organised international terrorist group could be involved. The size and magnitude of the attack and the fact that no advance warning was given (ETA often called the police or news agencies minutes before a blast took place) cast doubts as to whether the Basques were behind the blasts.

Spain, which has a large Muslim population, was in the forefront of the campaign to bomb Iraq, extending full support and cooperation to the United States and Britain. Spanish troops continue to be stationed in Iraq despite terrorist attacks on their units.

The Government's decision to blame ETA indicates it is nervous of a negative political fallout should it be proved in the next 48 hours that Islamic extremists, and not ETA, were behind the blasts.

There was shock and consternation across Europe and messages of sympathy flooded in from Paris, Berlin, London, the European Union and other places across the world.

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