Eta car bomb explodes in Madrid hours before visit by royals

IN THE most serious Eta attack in the Spanish capital for three years, a powerful car bomb claimed by the Basque separatist organisation exploded yesterday near a business conference centre where the King and Queen of Spain were to open an international art show hours later.

The blast shattered the futuristic facade of a computer company building, damaged 18 parked cars and injured more than 40 people, none seriously. The 30kg of explosives packed in a stolen Renault went off at 9.30am. Ignacio Lomas, 44, who was in a meeting at the Bull company's glass- clad office, said: "We'd just got together for our morning meeting on the second floor when the bomb went off and sent me flying three metres across the room.

"We all got out as quick as we could; everything's shattered in there, I don't know when we'll be able to go back in," Mr Lomas said, clutching a blanket that someone had thrown across his shoulders. His hands and face were crisscrossed with cuts and starting to swell.

Hours later, firefighters were still sweeping heaps of rubble and shards of glass that had flown from the building's windows when the bomb exploded. High on a fire engine crane, two officers sent further cascades of glass crashing to the ground by hacking out damaged windows with pickaxes. More than 20 windows gaped open to the sky, and the interior of the building's lower floors was devastated. Another employee, Joaquin Bona, was in his office having a coffee when the blast hit. "It was like being in a violent car crash, but five times stronger," he said. "A huge metal cabinet in my office toppled over and nearly crushed me. Some people were thrown to the floor with blood on their face. We rushed out to find police cars were all around."

Police had received a tip-off from Eta that a bomb was to explode in the area in half an hour, but the location was imprecise and the bomb went off five minutes early.

Moments' walk from the scene is the high and handsome conference and exhibition centre where King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia were to inaugurate Madrid's international contemporary art fair, Arco, last night. The annual event attracts art-lovers and dealers from across the world. Flags of all nations fluttered outside the building, a brave splash of colour in a featureless zone of offices and business hotels. The flags herald Madrid's bid for the 2012 Olympics, some of whose events would be held in the conference centre.

"Madrid 2012. Ready for You" screamed huge scarlet and gold words, in English, from the glass facade of the building which would be the venue for Olympic taekwondo, table tennis, badminton, judo, boxing, wrestling, fencing and beach volleyball. The blast, and the hours of traffic chaos that ensued, is bound to affect Madrid's chances of hosting the games. After last March's train bombings by Islamic extremists, and a clutch of parcel bombs in petrol stations around Madrid last December, security was a big worry for the Olympic inspection team that visited the city last weekend.

Eleven months ago, the exhibition centre was used as an improvised mortuary for victims of the train bombings which killed 192 and wounded hundreds. As Spain braces for the anniversary next month of Europe's most serious Islamist terror attack, politicians' promises to guarantee the safety of Olympic contestants and visitors have received a sharp knock.

The Eta bomb coincided with a police sweep against the Basque separatist organisation in which a total of 14 suspects were detained in dawn raids in the Basque country, Navarra, Valencia and Andalusia. The operation "completely dismantled" Eta's recruitment structure, said Jose Antonio Alonso, the Interior Minister, using words used many times over the decades. Meanwhile, rumours swirl that Eta wants to talk. Much weakened in recent months, Eta wants the government to bring nearer home more than 700 Eta prisoners jailed throughout Spain as one condition for a possible ceasefire.

But Mr Alonso insisted yesterday: "There's no negotiation. We'll continue to act firmly against terror, and sooner or later we'll put an end to Eta." He promised "maximum police action" after the blast.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's socialist government, and the conservative opposition, rejected in parliament last week a Basque plan for negotiated independence and free association with Spain.

"I have warned the terrorists of Eta and those who support them that there is no room for them in our society, that bombs will lead only to prison, and that the future of the Basque country within a united Spain will be built despite them," Mr Zapatero said yesterday while on a visit to Poland.

CAMPAIGN OF VIOLENCE

THE LAST car bomb Eta planted in Madrid was in May 2002 at an office block opposite Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu football stadium in the heart of the city, hours before a match against Barcelona. Nineteen were injured.

In February last year, an attempted Eta bombing in the capital was foiled when police intercepted a vehicle heading for Madrid carrying 500kg of explosives.

There followed a lull in Eta violence: there have been no deaths for more than a year.

The organisation was seriously weakened when its top leaders in Spain and France were detained in a number of police raids, prompting fierce internal debate over tactics.

Low-intensity violence continued in resorts throughout last summer, intended to frighten rather than kill.

On 3 December, the eve of a national holiday, five small parcel bombs were placed in petrol stations in and around Madrid, paralysing the city for hours.

Propaganda by the deed continued in 2005 as Eta toyed with the idea of a ceasefire: bombs targeted companies in three Basque towns on 8 January, a car bomb hit the prosperous Basque neighbourhood of Getxo on 18 January, and on 30 January a tourist hotel was bombed at Denia near Alicante, injuring some holidaymakers. Warnings were given on every occasion.

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