Three men suspected of involvement in the Madrid train bombings blew themselves up last night, after they were cornered by police in an apartment block in a suburb of the Spanish capital.
The explosion killed one Spanish special agent and injured 11 police, and followed a shoot-out between officers and the alleged terrorists.
Police units arrived at a flat in the south-west suburb of Leganes last night in search of suspects in the 11 March bombings that killed 191 people and injured 1,800.
The Spanish Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, said when the occupants of the flat spotted the police, "they began firing and shouting and chanting in Arabic".
"The special police agents prepared to storm the building and when they started to execute the plan, the terrorists set off a powerful explosion blowing themselves up," he said. "There are three that could have blown themselves up, but the possibility of more is not ruled out." The bomb was said by witnesses to have blown out the façades from the first three floors of the block of flats where the men had been holed up. Mr Acebes said it was possible one of the suspects may have escaped before the police cordoned off the area.
The men are thought to be part of a group of six that Spanish authorities say they are still chasing over the March bombings. Mr Acebes said it would be some time before the men could be identified. It was not clear if they included the man the Spanish government has named as the suspected leader of the attacks, Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, a Tunisian.
Reports said the policeman killed was aged about 50. State radio said 40 homes in the area were evacuated before the explosion.
Spain has already charged 15 people, 11 of them Moroccan, over the train bombings. Last night's events came as The Independent on Sunday learnt that Britain's security agencies are hunting for a suspect known as "The Recruiter" who is enlisting young British Muslims for terror attacks. He is thought to be a British citizen who received military training in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and may have fought in Afghanistan alongside al-Qa'ida or the Taliban, security sources said.
Also yesterday, Scotland Yard obtained permission to extend their time to question nine British men, all Muslims of Pakistani origin, who were arrested last week in a series of raids during which half a tonne of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser used to make bombs, was found. The arrest period for eight of the men arrested last Tuesday expired yesterday, but police obtained an extension until this Tuesday under anti-terrorism laws. Police were given until Monday evening to question the ninth man, who was arrested on Thursday.
Earlier yesterday, in Madrid, Mr Acebes confirmed the bomb found on Friday on the Madrid to Seville mainline contained the same explosive used in the 11 March massacre. The apparent plan was to detonate the bomb under one of the high-speed express trains to Seville, which would have been packed with Easter pilgrims. No trigger device was found, leading the authorities to believe the perpetrators were interrupted. Train services resumed yesterday after being suspended for more than 24 hours.
Mr Acebes also said that French police, who arrested three senior members of the Basque separatist group ETA on Friday, had found two backpacks containing explosive devices and two limpet bombs, all ready for use, in an apartment. He made no connection with the Madrid bombings or with Friday's near atrocity.
The Spanish authorities have named the radical Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group as the suspected culprit in the Madrid bombings. Juan del Olmo, the judge leading the investigation, has asked British police to hunt for the alleged mastermind, Abdelkarim el-Majati, who lived in London. Six other named suspects were said to have left their addresses in Spain.
Of the 15 people charged over the attacks, six have been charged with mass murder and nine with collaborating with or belonging to a terrorist organisation. Eleven are Moroccan.
Meanwhile, the search by Britain's security agencies for "The Recruiter" is compounded by uncertainty over the number of British Muslims who received training in camps either run by, or affiliated to, al-Qa'ida. The figure was thought to be about 4,000 shortly after 11 September, but is now considered to be up to 800. Although the majority returned to the UK without any further involvement in terrorist activities, several are suspected of acting as recruiters for al-Qa'ida.
Britons have taken part in a handful of terror incidents abroad, including Richard Reid's attempted "shoe bombing" of an airliner flying to the US and a suicide bombing in Israel. Security services are concerned that an attack on British soil will be carried out by Islamist extremists who were born or grew up here. Such a suspect is harder to track down than foreign-born members of exile groups who have sought asylum in Britain.
The Provisional IRA, in later stages, used "lilywhites" British-born people of Irish descent without overt links with republicanism to carry out attacks on the mainland.
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