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Omagh Aftermath: Madrid sheds tears for Spanish teacher and pupil

MOURNERS GATHERED at two cemeteries in Madrid yesterday for the funerals of two young Spaniards who died in the Omagh car-bomb attack on Saturday, in which 12 Spaniards were injured - four of them still too ill to be airlifted home.

Fernando Blasco, 12, was buried after a Catholic ceremony at a private chapel in south-west Madrid, where the boy's family drew upon their deep religious conviction to try to console themselves for his death. "He was such a good boy that the Virgin wanted to take him with her," his grandmother said. The fatal attack took place on the day of the Assumption of the Virgin, one of Spain's most important religious festivals.

It was the second August in Donegal for Fernando, a pupil at a Jesuit school in northern Madrid, who was continuing a tradition followed by his six brothers and sisters.

His sister Lucretia, 13, who was also on the trip, was treated in a Belfast hospital for an ear wound. By a cruel stroke of fate, their father, Manuel, was injured in a Basque separatist car-bomb attack on a Madrid supermarket in 1992.

Rocio Abad, 23, who had acted as guide to a group of Spanish children and teenagers visiting Northern Ireland on an exchange to study English, was cremated yesterday in the capital's main Almudena crematorium. Ms Abad, who was to finish a biology degree next month, died instantly despite sprinting with her charges following a police order to clear the area.

The two coffins were brought to Getafe military airport near Madrid before dawn yesterday and carried from the plane by soldiers across the floodlit tarmac. The hush was interrupted only by the sobs of relatives and the murmuring of cicadas. An aircraft equipped with hospital beds yesterday repatriated eight of the 12 Spaniards treated in hospital in Northern Ireland for wounds inflicted by the attack. The remaining four gravely injured by the blast were too ill to travel, although their lives are not in danger.

In a country sickened by deaths from terror attacks by Eta Basque separatists, these were the first Spaniards to be killed in the conflict in Ireland, a country that has long held a special place in Spanish affections. Catholic links, forged by convent schools and church fraternities have created a rich network of exchanges that bind generations of Irish and Spanish families. Any Spaniard who speaks passable English is as likely to have learnt the language in Ireland as in England. Some 40,000 Spanish teenagers visit Ireland every summer to improve their English.

The group of Spaniards on a day-trip to Omagh were drawn from a variety of schools, but their Irish stay was organised by the Ireland-based Donegal Centre. The centre's director, Paula Helguera, a Spanish woman married to an Irishman, made contacts with Irish families and placed the Spanish students in Irish language schools.

The Spanish Association for Promoting Courses Abroad, Aseproce, which lays down guidelines for overseas study trips, said the Donegal Centre was not a member of the association, and accused it of "criminal naivety" for thinking that all Ulster was pacified "when an IRA splinter group rejected the peace accords."

Aseproce's president said: "We were surprised that this group had made an excursion to Ulster ... there are areas where you don't go."

Ms Helguera said yesterday that her centre fulfilled all the necessary regulations.

Herri Batasuna, the party linked to the Basque separatist organisation Eta, made an unprecedented declaration of "sadness and solidarity" for the Omagh victims and said it was "very affected by the consequences of the attack" - words it has never used about Eta's victims.