Eta accused as Madrid car bomb kills senior judge

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Terrorists detonated a powerful car-bomb in a bustling residential district of Madrid yesterday, killing a Supreme Court judge, his bodyguard and his driver, and wounding scores of passers-by.

Terrorists detonated a powerful car-bomb in a bustling residential district of Madrid yesterday, killing a Supreme Court judge, his bodyguard and his driver, and wounding scores of passers-by.

The attack - a strike at the heart of the Spain's political authority, and the most deadly in a year of bloody violence throughout Spain - bore the hallmarks of the Basque separatist organisation Eta, which frequently says it wants to destabilise the Spanish state in its pursuit of an independent homeland.

Judge Francisco Querol, 69, his police bodyguard, Jesus Escudero Garcia, 53, and his driver, Armando Medina Sanchez, 57, were killed when their official vehicle passed a red Renault 19 that had been packed with 30kg of dynamite. The explosive was detonated by remote control and the three men died instantly, their car reduced to charred wreckage.

Judge Querol, responsible for military hearings, had the rank of general and was to retire in two weeks. The attack, so efficiently executed in the heart of Madrid gives lie to repeated government assurances that Eta terrorists have been, according to the Interior Minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, "virtually decapitated" by recent high-profile detentions.

The blast caused a bus and several cars to burst into flames, sending smoke billowing into the sky, and people screaming through the streets at the peak of the morning rush hour.

The explosion happened in the vicinity of several schools. Sandra Jimenez, aged 15, said: "I'd just left school to come home because I wasn't feeling well, when the blast caught me in the doorway of my apartment block.

"I phoned my mother to say I was all right, and she was shouting hysterically, saying the windows were shattered and everything had flown everywhere."

Police kept Sandra from returning home, or her mother from leaving, while firemen cleared the area of broken glass and rubble from high-rise flats' devastated balconies, and health workers ferried those hit by debris to hospital in a fleet of ambulances or treated them on the spot in a field hospital.

More than 60 people were injured, including the driver of the bus caught up in the blast. He underwent hours of surgery for his injuries, and his condition was said to be critical.

A large area around the busy crossroads in north-east Madrid was cordoned off and local banks, supermarkets, hairdressers and shops were evacuated, casting an eerie silence over an area usually vibrant with high-decibel activity.

Groups of people huddled together holding muttered conversations in which words like "rabble" and "scum" and "prison for life" recurred.

Mari-Carmen Sepulveda, 65, said: "It's not just the poor victims I feel for, it's the innocent people caught in the blast. It makes you feel insecure, impotent. We must talk, have dialogue. It's for the government to do something. Ifordinary people speak up, it just marks us out as targets. But the worst thing is to keep quiet from fear."

Mrs Sepulveda hurried down to the street as soon as she heard the blast that made her home shake. She met up with Paquita Sanchez, who nodded at her neighbour's words. "The politicians must put their heads together," she agreed.

The authorities yesterday urged anyone with information to contact police on a special hotline. Such appeals are increasingly frequent as terrorist attacks continue, confirming the impression that Spain's security forces, despite ever fiercer clampdowns, are stumbling in the dark.

A former Eta leader, Francisco Mujika Garmendia, known as "Pakito", was sentenced to 30 years' jail yesterday for killing a high court judge in 1989. During his trial last month, Garmendia warned that all judges were potential targets.

Yesterday's killing brings to 19 the deaths inflicted since Eta ended a 14-month ceasefire last December. The last attack attributed to the organisation occurred on 22 October when a prison officer died in a car-bomb blast in the Basque capital, Vitoria. Workmen at the scene yesterday humped buckets of rubble as the sirens quietened and the sun grew fiercer. "I must go and prepare lunch," Mrs Sepulveda sighed. "Yes, me too," Mrs Sanchez replied, and they resumed what passes for normal life.