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Spain maintains eta bomb suspect a day before elections

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Spain Maintains ETA Is Main Bomb Suspect a Day Before Elections
March 13 (Bloomberg) -- The Spanish government is sticking to its position that the Basque terrorist group ETA is behind the Madrid bombings that killed 200 people on Thursday, a stance that may help the ruling Popular Party in tomorrow's general elections.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes went on national television last night to say the government believed ETA carried out the attacks on four commuter trains, even though the type of explosives that caused the blast hasn't been used by the group in more than a decade. At about the same time Acebes spoke, ETA issued a denial to Basque newspaper Gara.

The Popular Party's success in curtailing ETA attacks under retiring Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has contributed to its lead in opinion polls. Signs the attack may have been the work of a group linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network in revenge for Aznar's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq was played down by Acebes, who called the evidence ``unreliable.''

``If ETA responsibility is confirmed, this would allow the PP to retain its absolute majority'' in parliament, said Richard Gillespie, a professor at the University of Liverpool. ``If the evidence pointed to an Islamic response to Spanish alignment with the U.S. in Iraq, or if voters decided that the government had been manipulating the evidence in order to point to ETA, this would help the opposition.''

More than 90 percent of Spaniards opposed the government support of the U.S. on Iraq and around the time of the attack on Baghdad, the opposition Socialist Party led by Jose Luis Zapatero, 43, surpassed the PP in an opinion poll for the first time since the PP came to power in 1996.

Aznar's Successor

The conservatives, who will be led in the elections by Aznar's successor Mariano Rajoy, 48, recovered in the past year, partly due to their success against ETA and also for delivering economic growth of 2.4 percent last year, more than five times the pace of the 12 nations sharing the euro. Aznar also balanced the budget and cut unemployment in half in the past eight years to 11 percent.

Rajoy's party will win 42 percent of the vote, compared with 38 percent for the opposition Socialists, according to an opinion poll conducted by market research company Sigma Dos for newspaper El Mundo. It was published on March 8, the latest day surveys could be released under election rules. The survey of 1,000 voting-age Spaniards had a margin of error 3.2 percent.

Acebes revealed last night that the type of explosive used in the bombings was a recent form of Goma Dos, which is manufactured in Spain. The interior minister said the discovery indicates ETA involvement, though the group hasn't used the Spanish explosive in an attack in more than a decade. The detonators used to set off the blast were also different from the type traditionally used by ETA.

Lack of Warning

The detonators also matched those found in a stolen van seized by police after the attack that also contained a cassette tape in Arabic used to teach the Koran, the Muslim holy book, he said. A group called Brigades of Martyr Abu Hafs al-Masri on Thursday sent a letter to an Arab language newspaper in London, taking responsibility for the blast in the name of al-Qaeda.

Acebes said that his counterparts in the U.K. government said the letter was ``unreliable.'' The same group had also claimed other bombings, later discredited by authorities and even said they had caused the August blackout on the East Coast of the U.S. that left almost 50 million people without power.

The scale of the Madrid bombing and the lack of a warning contrasts with other attacks by ETA, whose initials stand for Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom.

The group has killed more than 800 people in its 35 years of campaign for a Basque country independent from France and Spain, though generally it picks military and police targets. ETA also generally calls with a warning to security forces before setting off explosives. The 200 victims killed in the Madrid attack are more than ETA has killed in the past decade.

ETA Arrests

``It would be a complete change in its modus operandi'' if ETA is behind the blasts, said Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The extent of the attack, which security forces say required at least a dozen militants to place the bombs, seems beyond ETA's reach given a recent police crackdown, analysts said.

Spanish and French security forces have arrested more than 200 ETA activists in the past two years and prior to Madrid bombings the organization had killed only 3 people in the past year, the fewest in three decades. ETA's biggest previous attack came in Barcelona in 1987, when a bomb killed 21 people in the garage of a shopping center. Police had been warned, though didn't find the bomb in time.

Ranstorp says that the crackdown means there may be as few as a couple of hundred ETA militants and others that provide logistical support to the organization out of a population of 2 million Spanish Basques.

Radical Faction?

There were signs that ETA was looking to carry out an attack in Madrid before the elections. Police last month apprehended a van with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives that alleged ETA activists were bringing to Madrid. Police also arrested two men on Christmas Eve in another Madrid train station with suitcases filled with explosives.

An ETA role in the attack could also signal a splintering of the organization and the emergence of a more radical ETA faction, a similar process to what happened in Ireland with the emergence of the Real IRA, which opposed a ceasefire and broke off from the main Irish Republican Army and carried out the Omagh bombing in 1998, the worst single attack in Ireland.

``Despite the denial by Batasuna and ETA, it's possible to believe that given the recent pressure by police, ETA split up into several factions and that one of these factions did this attack without the direction of the traditional leadership,'' said Tom Chamberlain, security expert at Control Risks Group, a U.K.-based consultancy on risks for businesses.

ETA's Roots

ETA has carried out its biggest attacks in Madrid, seat of the Spanish government, and often strikes during elections campaigns.

The group has its roots in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who for almost four decades tried to crush Basque nationalism, barring Basques from using their language and promoting their culture. In the final years of the Franco dictatorship the Basque separatist movement enjoyed support outside the region because it was provided some of the only armed resistance to Franco.

Spain's return to democracy after Franco's death in 1975 brought the Basque region increased autonomy. The Basque language and traditions flourished and a regional government was given control of the education system and even allowed to levy taxes. Support for ETA's methods waned, though the group has continued its armed fight for independence from Spain and France, where there are three Basque provinces.

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