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Madrdid train blasts kill at least 131 { March 11 2004 }

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Madrid train blasts kill at least 131
Thu March 11, 2004 06:27 AM ET

By Daniel Trotta
MADRID (Reuters) - Simultaneous explosions have killed at least 131 people and injured more than 400 on packed trains in Madrid in pre-election attacks in what could be the bloodiest day in three decades of violent Basque separatism.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday's blasts which ripped open rush-hour trains like tuna cans and splattered blood everywhere at one of the three stations hit just ahead of a Spanish national election on Sunday.

A Madrid official said the death toll could be significantly higher, and the ruling Popular Party suspended its election campaign, which had focused on a tougher stance against ETA Basque separatist guerrillas driving for a separate homeland.

Government ministers blamed the explosions on ETA, which is branded by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organisation.

"There are dozens of victims...and the killers are trying to sow even more terror, spreading chaos...This is a collective killing by the criminal band which is ETA," Labour Minister Eduardo Zaplana told Cadena Ser radio station.

Pedro Calvo, head of security at Madrid City council, said there were 131 people killed in the explosions at three locations -- the central Madrid station of Atocha, the southern Madrid station of El Pozo and at Santa Eugenia.

Officials said at least 400 people were wounded.

"There were all kinds of wounded, many in their faces, amputations, broken bones. You don't know how impotent you feel not being able to treat everyone," said ambulance driver Enrique Sanchez of the devastation at Atocha station.

"The train was cut open like a can of tuna...We didn't know who to treat first. There was a lot of blood, a lot of blood."

Leaders of the European Union sent their condolences, many expressing shock at what European Parliament President Pat Cox called the worst act of terror in the memory of the 15-member European Union.


British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declined to speculate when asked if the militant group al Qaeda, blamed for similar simultaneous bombing attacks against British interests in Turkey in November, was responsible.

Britain and Spain were leading allies in last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna) has killed around 850 people since 1968 in its fight for Basque independence and has been a looming presence in the run-up to the Spanish elections as well as a focus for politicians vowing to take a tough line with the guerrilla group.

If ETA were responsible, it would be the worst attack ever by the group, exceeding the 21 killed in a supermarket blast in Barcelona in 1987.

Experts on ETA said the bombings did not fit ETA's usual profile for attacks. In the past the guerrilla group has frequently phoned ahead to warn of its plans.

"This is clearly an attempt to make a point just ahead of the elections. They had to do something to prove their vitality, their existence," Jean Chalvidant, an expert on ETA at France's Institute of Criminology, told French LCI television.

Last month, ETA declared a ceasefire limited to the northeastern region of Catalonia but made clear it would pursue the armed struggle in the rest of the country.

Less than two weeks ago police arrested two suspected ETA members who were heading for Madrid with a van containing 500 kg (1,100 lbs) of explosives, averting a possible massacre in the capital.

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