Five bombs hit Madrid after threat from Eta

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The Independent Online

Five bombs exploded in petrol stations near motorways in and around Madrid last night following warnings from a spokesman for Eta, the Basque separatist group.

Five bombs exploded in petrol stations near motorways in and around Madrid last night following warnings from a spokesman for Eta, the Basque separatist group.

Up to four people were slightly hurt, but serious injuries were averted as police were able to evacuate the sites before the bombs went off. Rush-hour traffic was paralysed on the eve of a long weekend holiday, when millions of Madrileños were heading out of town.

Police were told of a warning that was posted on the website of the radical separatist Basque newspaper Gara 50 minutes before the devices exploded. Gara, in San Sebastian, said it received a telephone call from a caller identifying himself as a member of Eta.

Police said the bombs, which were left in rubbish bins, were small and caused relatively little damage. The five petrol stations were cordoned off by police and firefighters. Motorways out of town were closed while police investigated the areas, leading to enormous traffic jams.

The proprietor of one of the garages, in Batan on the western fringes of the capital, said he had received a telephone warning that bomb would go off 50 minutes later. The other garages were also on motorways out of town.

The devices were clearly intended to cause chaos and public alarm without causing serious harm, in accordance with the recent strategy of the armed separatists. The bombs were said to be comparable to those placed at various tourist resorts in the summer, also claimed by Eta, which were apparently not intended to cause injury or death.

The group has been blamed for more than 800 deaths since the late 1960s. Its last fatal attack was in May 2003; a car bombing that killed two policemen in the northern town of Sanguesa.

Last month, a banned party seen as Eta's political wing proposed a new formula for peace talks with the government, raising hopes that Eta might be prepared to end its armed struggle.

The leader of the banned Batasuna party, Arnaldo Otegi, urged thousands of supporters in a sports hall in San Sebastian on 15 November to "take the Basque conflict out of the streets" and to the negotiating table. Mr Otegi called on other Basque political parties "not to drop this olive branch".

The latest bomb blasts proved once more that Eta still has formidable operational capability. They also suggest that Mr Otegi has limited influence on Eta. "Otegi is completely subordinate to Eta and his proposal for dialogue is therefore completely without credibility," said Gaspar Llamazares, leader of the United Left party.

This is the first time Eta has shown signs of life in Madrid since the 11 March train bombings that were initially blamed on the organisation, before evidence emerged pointing to al-Qa'ida. But for many years, Eta has always mounted some spectacular operation in the Spanish capital to coincide with the Christmas holiday season. Last Christmas Eve, a train bomb at Madrid's Chamartin station was thwarted by police.

In December 2002, the Civil Guard foiled plans to plant a car bomb in the capital. And in December 1999, police intercepted a van en route to Madrid carrying a ton and a half of dynamite destined for a huge Christmas bombing campaign.

Meanwhile, in a report released earlier in the day, Amnesty International attacked the Spanish authorities for frequently allowing torture of suspected Eta members and illegal immigrants.

In a study of 450 court cases between 1980 and 2004, the human rights watchdog criticised the chronic slowness of Spanish courts and frequent impunity for torturers.

While it said there was no systematic police torture, Amnesty identified a growing problem of racist treatment of illegal immigrants. Amnesty said Spain's practice of holding incommunicado suspected members of Eta or al-Qa'ida encouraged torture. The rights group said victims were often not adequately compensated because their torturers could not be identified. It called for sanctions to punish officials who conceal torture and demanded that Spain sign up to a United Nations protocol on torture.