MADRID - Simultaneous bomb blasts ripped through four packed commuter trains in Madrid on Thursday, killing 192 people and injuring 1,421 in Europe's bloodiest attack for more than 15 years.
Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's government focused blame on the Basque separatist group ETA, but a purported al Qaeda letter to an Arabic newspaper claimed responsibility for the 10 blasts, which triggered fear in world financial markets.
After initially blaming ETA outright for the attack, three days before Spain's general election, the government later said a stolen van had been found near Madrid carrying seven detonators and an Arabic tape of verses from the Koran.
A Spanish policeman walks past a hole blasted through a train in an explosion at Madrid's Atocha train station after an explosion March 11, 2004. Ten simultaneous explosions killed 182 people on packed Madrid commuter trains in Europe's bloodiest attack for more than 15 years. Officials said 900 people were wounded. Photo by Andrea Comas/Reuters
"The conclusion of this morning that pointed to (ETA) right now is still the main line of investigation... (But) I have given the security forces instructions not to rule out anything," Interior Minister Angel Acebes told reporters.
The van was found in Alcala, the starting point of one of the bombed trains.
No authentication was available on the purported al Qaeda letter, a copy of which was faxed to the Reuters office in Dubai by the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.
"We have succeeded in infiltrating the heart of crusader Europe and struck one of the bases of the crusader alliance," said the letter, calling the attack "Operation Death Trains."
U.S. intelligence agencies said it was too early to say who was responsible but saw the hallmarks of both ETA and al Qaeda, which has threatened to attack countries such as Spain that supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
"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 bomb blasts tore people including a baby to shreds and left pools of blood on wrecked trains, tracks and buildings.
"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."
"BABY 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. He vowed his center-right government would arrest the "criminals" behind the bombings.
The government declared three days of national mourning and said schools, museums and the central bank would shut on Friday. King Juan Carlos, often an anchor in times of turbulence, made a somber television address to the nation.
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.
The Basque group's most deadly confirmed attack killed 21 people at a supermarket in Barcelona in 1987.
Thursday's death toll was the biggest 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 parties suspended election campaigning.
Many political analysts said that if ETA was responsible for the attack it would favor Aznar's 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 world leaders in condemning the bombings, as did the U.N. Security Council.
France said it would raise its terror alert on Friday and Greece, host of this August's Athens Olympic Games, said it was stepping up security measures on all rail and subway systems.
European shares suffered their worst fall of 2004 as the attack spooked investors. U.S. stocks and the dollar fell after the bombings and mixed economic data.
Some experts on ETA said the attack did not fit the group's usual profile and would mark a major escalation.
ETA, which last month declared a cease-fire limited to the northeastern Catalonia region, typically targets individual politicians and normally warns of bombs in public places.
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd