Eta bomb greets Zapatero plea for peace talks

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A rucksack packed with explosives blew up in a van in an industrial zone of north-east Madrid, 45 minutes after a Basque newspaper received a warning in the name of Eta separatists.

A rucksack packed with explosives blew up in a van in an industrial zone of north-east Madrid, 45 minutes after a Basque newspaper received a warning in the name of Eta separatists.

The powerful bomb yesterday morning damaged buildings and vehicles, and slightly injured 52 people. It was the latest in a string of blasts that have greeted controversial proposals by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government to open contacts with the separatists if Eta renounces violence.

Parliament in Madrid approved the Prime Minister's high-risk initiative last week, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the conservative Popular Party (PP) whose spokesman, Angel Acebes, reiterated yesterday its desire to see Eta crushed.

A caller telephoned the radical Basque newspaper Gara to warn that a bomb would explode in the area in 45 minutes. Police evacuated workers and sealed off the zone ahead of the blast at 9.30am local time. A plume of smoke billowed into the sky, and a police helicopter patrolled the zone. Mr Zapatero condemned the bombing and said Eta's only prospect was to lay down its arms. "I want to share with you my condemnation for this violent act, for this act of terror," he told the Senate. "I repeat that the terrorist group Eta's only fate is to give up its arms and disband."

Yesterday's attack follows a bomb blast at the home of a local businessman in the Basque coastal town of Zarautz on Sunday. Another device was deactivated. A week earlier, four bombs went off across the Basque country's Guipuzcoa region, apparently directed against Basque businessmen who failed to pay Eta's extortion money, or "revolutionary tax".

The Madrid attack was Eta's first in the capital since February, when a car bomb wrecked the headquarters of a French computer company, hours before King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia inaugurated an art show near by. It is further proof that the organisation, though weakened by hundreds of detentions and demoralisation in the ranks, remains operative even outside the Basque territory.

The explosive-packed rucksack was left in a Renault stolen the night before. The area contains office buildings of car companies including Opel, and is near the offices of El Pais newspaper. A National Court building has recently opened in an adjoining street. Several people who could not be evacuated in time were injured by flying glass and treated at the scene.

Eta has desisted from a fatal attack for nearly two years, in what some have called an informal ceasefire, and the organisation has indicated its desire to talk. Socialist ministers reckon this is the best chance for years to bring Eta in from the cold.

A proposal backed by parliament on 17 May urged the organisation to "disband and lay down its arms" as a condition for the government to accept negotiations. The conservative PP accused Mr Zapatero of surrendering to terrorists.

But the Prime Minister will be following similar approaches by his predecessors since the 1980s. The last, failed, attempt was in 1999, during a 14-month truce. Mr Zapatero said talks would cover only matters such as treatment for hundreds of Eta prisoners, and would not address separatists' political demands.

Commentators say that if Mr Zapatero fails, the conflict is likely to intensify, keeping rapprochement off the agenda for years.

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