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Death toll in madrid bombings rises to 198 { March 12 2004 }

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Death Toll in Madrid Bombings Rises to 198
Spanish Government Dismisses Accusations That It Ignored Possible Link to Islamic Extremists

By Keith Richburg and Fred Barbash
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 12, 2004; 7:30 AM

MADRID, March 12 -- As the death toll from Thursday's multiple bomb blasts rose to 198 dead, the Spanish government here reacted defensively Friday to accusations that it initially ignored a possible link to Islamic extremists and focused too quickly on blaming the Basque separatist group ETA for Spain's worst-ever terrorist attack.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, in a late morning press conference, angrily dismissed suggestions that the government initially withheld evidence that an Islamic terrorist group may be responsible for the attacks, saying whoever made the charge should apologize.

He said the government immediately informed the public of the discovery of a van containing detonator caps and an Arabic language cassette tape of Koranic verses. "Never was there any information relating to the investigation that was not given to the public," Aznar said, in answer to a reporter's question.

Aznar also defended the interior minister, Angel Acebes, for initially telling reporters Thursday that ETA -- whose initials stand for Basque Homeland and Freedom -- was behind the attacks "without doubt."

Aznar related a list of recent, foiled ETA attempts to stage a major strike in the capital, including the capture of an explosive-laden van two weeks ago, and another foiled plot to bomb trains on Christmas Eve. "Isn't it reasonable to think that group would be the culprits?" Aznar asked rhetorically.

Aznar said investigators were following all leads, including a possible al Qaeda link, but when pressed by reporters, he refused to speculate about whether ETA or Islamic militants were the most likely perpetrators of the bomb blasts. "I'm not going to play Lotto," Aznar said hotly at one point. "We can't talk of probabilities. The government is not going to play with hypotheses."

With Spanish national elections set to be held on Sunday -- and Aznar confirmed again that the elections will go ahead as scheduled -- assigning blame for Thursday's terrorist attacks has taken on political undertones that some media analysts said could affect the outcome of the voting.

If people widely perceive ETA as responsible, this common analysis says, then Aznar's ruling Popular Party should benefit, perhaps maintaining or even increasing its absolute majority in parliament, since the PP is seen as tough on Basque separatist demands. Aznar's handpicked successor, Mariano Rajoy, has pledged to continue Aznar's tough policy of refusing to negotiate with ETA.

However, if Islamic militants are believed involved, some analysts have said there could be a popular backlash against the Popular Party, for aligning Spain so closely with the United States and siding with the Bush administration in the Iraq War, which is still deeply unpopular here.

There was some initial evidence Friday that at least some people were ready to blame Aznar's pro-American policies for Thursday's tragedy. Outside the Atocha train station, where about half the people died, a group of demonstrators gathered around noon with some holding signs opposing the war in Iraq.

The Socialist Party candidate for prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has promised to pull out the 1,300 Spanish troops currently serving in Iraq.

Aznar has called for massive street demonstrations in all major Spanish cities tonight against violence and in support of the Spanish constitution. But the government is also anxious that those demonstrations not turn into protests against Spain's current Iraq policy, like the huge anti-war demonstrations of last year.

At noon Friday, Spaniards across the nation observed several minutes of silence. Offices, shops and cafes across Spain emptied as people went to stand in the street and remember those killed, the Associated Press reported.

Authorities had requested a minute's silence but many people in Madrid stood in the cool, wet weather for about 10 minutes. Afterward, many clapped -- a Spanish way to show respect and say goodbye.

In a show of solidarity with Spain after what is also the worst-ever terrorist attack on European soil in recent years, the prime ministers of France and Italy, and the head of the European Union, were en route to Madrid Friday to take part in the march here.

Meanwhile, Aznar confirmed that the death toll now stood at 198, with 1,463 wounded. The victims, he said, included eleven nationals from different countries, including two Poles, a French victim, a Moroccan, and several South Americans.

He said 178 victims had been positively identified. The government was having trouble with some identifications because some victims are believed to be illegal immigrants living in Spain.

The cabinet Friday approved emergency measures to grant Spanish nationality to any victims and their family members who were in Spain illegally and wanted it. The government also approved spending 140 million euros from its contingency fund to assist the victims and their families.

Meanwhile, Poland and Italy stepped up security at its borders and put police on heightened alert on Friday in response to fears al-Qaeda could have been behind the deadly terror attacks in Madrid, the Reuters news agency reported.

Like Spain, Poland and Italy backed the U.S.-led war on Iraq and have sent troops there.

The Polish government said there was no indication of an increased threat of attack, but raised security and monitoring measures on border crossings, airports, train stations, transport hubs and sea ports, Reuters reported.

"We have not received any signals from diplomatic or security sources about an increased danger, but we are taking nothing for granted," a grim faced Prime Minister Leszek Miller told a news conference.

Fred Barbash reported from Washington.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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