Published on Sunday, March 14, 2004 by The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
Furious Spanish Protesters Chant: ‘Our Dead, Your War’
Spanish Police Arrest Five Muslims as Crowds Accuse Aznar of Cover-Up
by Neil Mackay, Marion McKeone in Washington and James Cusick in Madrid
THREE Moroccans and two Indians have been arrested in Spain for the Madrid train bombings on Thursday. All five are thought to be linked to two militant Islamic groups which were named as the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and Salafia Jihadi.
The arrests came as 5000 angry demonstrators picketed the offices of the ruling Popular Party shouting "lies" and other slogans claiming that Prime Minister José María Aznar had covered up the truth about the atrocity by blaming the Basque separatist group ETA ahead of today's general election.
The arrests were confirmed by the interior minister, Angel Acebes, who said the five were arrested in connection with pay-as-you-go mobile phone cards found in a "backpack bomb" that the police recovered from one of the bombed trains. Acebes, who had blamed ETA within hours of the atrocity, said last night: "Sixty hours after the brutal attack, we now have five detentions."
American intelligence agencies believed all along that al-Qaeda was behind the Madrid bombings but deferred to the Spanish government's claims that ETA was responsible, pending the general election. Both FBI and CIA agents are in Madrid assisting the authorities.
Spain's National Intelligence Center (CNI) is also said to be "99% certain" that Muslim extremists and not ETA were responsible for the attacks, according to a left-wing Spanish radio station. Aznar's party faces an angry backlash today with many voters now convinced he lied about al-Qaeda's involvement fearing that the Spanish public would blame him for the loss of life. Nearly 90% of all Spaniards had been against Aznar supporting the war in Iraq and many now see the Madrid bombings as pay-back.
Aznar is seen in the Arab world as the third most significant player in the so-called "coalition of the willing". Spain has sent 1300 troops to Iraq.
If ETA had been responsible for the attacks, many voters would have flocked to the Popular Party because of Aznar's eight-year security crackdown on the Basque terror group.
ETA has denied any involvement in the attacks, and an Islamic extremist organization earlier claimed the atrocity in the name of al-Qaeda. A van linked to the attacks was found to contain Koranic verses and detonators.
Last night some 3000 people staged a spontaneous demonstration outside the Popular Party's offices in Madrid chanting "We want the truth before voting", "Who did it?", "Our dead, your war" "No more cover-ups" and "Aznar, because of you, we all pay". Some demonstrators were beaten by police in riot gear.
The Popular Party's Mariano Rajoy - who will be the new prime minister if Aznar's party wins the election after he decided to step down - denied the government withheld information, saying: "I give my word of honor that I do not know more than the rest of the Spanish people."
Opposition Socialist Party leaders have accused the government of hiding al-Qaeda's role. "Whoever toys with the truth at a time of so much pain is doing something very grave," said senior Socialist Party official José Blanco.
Al-Qaeda has long been known to have a number of sleeper cells in Spain. The country has jailed some two dozen al-Qaeda suspects, including eight men thought to have helped plan the September 11, 2001, attacks. Suspects in last May's Casablanca bombings and a 2002 synagogue bombing in Tunisia were also arrested in Spain.
The El Pais newspaper, which has strongly criticized Aznar's government, said that Spain's foreign minister, Ana Palacio, had written to ambassadors within hours of the explosions, saying in a memo: "You should use any opportunity to confirm ETA's responsibility for these brutal attacks, thus helping to dissipate any type of doubt that certain interested parties may want to promote."
As a result of the memo, there was a clash at the United Nations between a senior Spanish diplomat and the Russian ambassador. The Russian was reluctant to approve a resolution condemning Eta, arguing that it was impossible to prove responsibility for a terrorist act on the day it was committed.
Spanish anti-terrorism officials have questioned the government's insistence on blaming Eta despite evidence suggesting that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks.
Norway's Defense Research Establishment also uncovered documents linking al-Qaeda to the attacks. The documents said: "We must make use of the proximity to the elections in Spain in March next year. Spain can stand a maximum of two or three attacks before they will withdraw from Iraq."
The document identifies Spain as the weakest link in the Coalition of the Willing and says that if Spain withdrew then the other partners would follow like "pieces of domino". Bin Laden has previously threatened vengeance against Spain.
British intelligence was aware that al-Qaeda was planning to use 'train bombs' at least three months ago. Intelligence sources say continental targets were most at risk, particularly the high-speed Paris-Lyon TGV.
Both US and UK intelligence agencies suspected from the end of last year that al-Qaeda wanted to blow up a train as it went through a station. The bombs on the four trains that were attacked in Madrid were all meant to detonate as they converged on one station, bringing down the roof and killing thousands.
European and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies say that al-Qaeda has recruited thousands of men in countries like Germany, France and the UK. They are said to have received high-grade military training in firearms and explosives.
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