Bombings on Madrid Trains Kill 190
MADRID (Reuters) – Simultaneous bomb blasts ripped through four packed commuter trains in Madrid on Thursday, killing 190 people and injuring 1,247 in Europe’s bloodiest attack for more than 15 years.

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There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the 10 rush-hour blasts three days before Spain votes in a general election, but Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s center-right government blamed the Basque separatist group ETA.

An Interior Ministry source said the type of explosive was one commonly used by ETA. But the attack triggered fears in world financial markets that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda could be behind it.

Officials brushed aside suggestions that Muslim militants angry at Spain’s support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq could have planted the bombs, which tore people including a baby to shreds and left pools of blood on wrecked trains, tracks and buildings.

“It is absolutely clear that the terrorist organization ETA was seeking an attack with wide repercussions,” Interior Minister Angel Acebes told a news conference.

U.S. intelligence agencies said it was too early to say who was responsible, but saw the hallmarks of both ETA and al Qaeda.

“There are characteristics of each. You have multiple attacks, multiple explosions in different locations in a short period of time which is very al Qaeda-ish,” said one U.S. official, who declined to be identified.

“The train was cut open like a can of tuna,” ambulance driver Enrique Sanchez told reporters at the huge Atocha station in central Madrid. “We didn’t know who to treat first. There was a lot of blood, a lot of blood.”

“TORN TO BITS”

Passenger Ana Maria Mayor’s voice cracked as she told reporters: “I saw a baby torn to bits.”

The other blasts occurred at El Pozo station in southern Madrid and at Santa Eugenia in the southeast of the capital.

A somber Aznar called on Spaniards, who have protested in their hundreds of thousands against past attacks by ETA, to take to the streets on Friday and vowed the government would arrest the “criminals” behind the bombings.

The radical Basque party Batasuna, accused by the government of being an integral part of ETA, said it “absolutely rejected” the attack and was convinced ETA was not responsible.

ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna) has killed around 850 people since 1968 in its fight for a separate Basque homeland in northwest Spain and southwest France, and has been branded a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

Late last month, police arrested two suspected ETA members heading for Madrid with a van containing 500 kg (1,100 lb) of explosives, averting a possible attack.

If the Basque group was responsible for Thursday’s bombings, it would be its deadliest attack, far exceeding the 21 people it killed in a supermarket blast in Barcelona in 1987.

It was the biggest death toll in an attack in Europe since December 1988, when a bomb exploded on board a Pan American Boeing 747, bringing it down on the Scottish town of Lockerbie. In all, 270 people died.

Aznar called an emergency cabinet meeting and his conservative Popular Party suspended its election campaign, which had focused on a tougher stance against ETA.

Many political analysts said that if ETA was responsible for the attack it would favor the Popular Party in the election because of its hard line against the group.

“If, however, the rumors about al Qaeda gain credence, then things would be perceived in a very different way,” said pollster Julian Santamaria. Aznar defied main opposition parties and huge public anti-war sentiment to back the Iraq war.

President Bush joined other leaders in condemning the bombings.

European shares suffered their worst fall of 2004 as the attack spooked investors already worried about economic recovery. U.S. stocks and the dollar fell after the bombings and mixed economic data.

Some experts on ETA said the bombings did not fit the group’s usual profile for attacks. ETA has frequently warned in advance of its attacks.

Last month ETA declared a cease-fire limited to the northeastern region of Catalonia.

In October, two audio tapes purportedly from bin Laden said the al Qaeda had the “right to respond at any suitable time and place” against countries backing Washington over Iraq.

(Additional reporting by Marta Calleja, Elisabeth O’Leary and Julia Hayley)