The bomb, which went off as Lieutenant-General Francisco Vesguillas' armour-plated car drove past on the Plaza de Ramales in the morning rush-hour, blew one body from the street on to the first-floor balcony of a block of flats, injured 14 other people, three critically, destroyed 30 cars and caused panic among passers-by. It was one of the worst such attacks in the capital in recent years and appeared aimed at showing that Eta still had the capacity to strike with sophisticated explosive devices despite the capture of many of the group's leaders over the past two years.
Vesguillas, aged 69 and a 52- year veteran of the army, was serving as Director-General of Political Defence, a key policy-making post in the Defence Ministry. He had been a military attache in Washington and had played a key role in Spain's accession to and membership in Nato. His driver was one of the other two people killed on the spot.
Police said a parked car packed with 20kg of explosives had been detonated as the general's car drove past. Despite its armour- plating, his car was left almost unrecognisable and his bodyguard was among the badly injured. Witnesses said members of Spain's National Dance company may have been among the injured, since one of the company's props vans was unloading on the square. Screaming women ran around the triangular plaza looking for family members as other cars burst into flames for minutes after the 8.40am bomb, and thick black smoke covered the square.
It was not immediately known whether any tourists were injured. The square is in an area most tourists tend to pass on their way from the bustling Puerta del Sol to the Royal Palace, the historic residence of Spanish monarchs, although King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia live in the Zarzuela Palace outside the capital and are on holiday in Majorca.
The attack appeared timed as a major psychological blow as Madrilenos set off on their annual August holiday. Most take Friday off to head for the coast and police roadblocks in search of the terrorists added to the chaos on motorways out of the city.
It was also a tough pre-holiday blow for the beleaguered minority government of the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez.
The government has been criticised for 'going soft' on Eta insurgents, notably over plans to free jailed terrorists early or even grant amnesty to some. The opposition conservative leader, Jose Maria Aznar, attacked the government for 'weakness and confusion in their anti-terrorist policy'.
Eta, set up in the Sixties, when the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and his crushing of Basque culture provided a cause, has killed around 750 people in the past 25 years.
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