Rush-hour car bombs kill seven in Madrid: Explosions thought to be Eta's response to the jailing of its leaders and the failure of its political wing at the polls

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MADRID - Two car bombs exploded in central Madrid during yesterday morning's rush hour, killing seven people in attacks that bore the hallmarks of Eta, the Basque separatist group. Five soldiers died and more than a dozen civilians were injured.

The Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, who is in Copenhagen for a European Community summit meeting, condemned the attacks and said he was convinced they were the work of Eta. Mr Gonzalez described the bombings as a 'terrifying crime', and appeared to relate them to the general elections. 'It's clear what this signifies for Eta following the elections,' he told reporters, referring to the poor showing in the 6 June poll by Herri Batasuna, Eta's political wing.

On Friday, Francisco Mugica Garmendia, the Eta supreme commander arrested in March last year, was sentenced to a 10-year jail term by a Paris court. Two lieutenants were given eight and six years. There was speculation that the bombs could have been an Eta response to the sentences.

A statement by the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), however, linked the bombs to the elections. 'Eta has 'celebrated' its electoral failure with a macabre attack. We have always said Eta can carry out attacks like today's . . . but that does not alter our conviction that they are in an irreversible, terminal condition,' the statement said. Herri Batasuna lost two of its four parliamentary seats, while Mr Gonzalez has approached the PNV with a view to forming a coalition.

Yesterday's bombing looked like being the worst attack in more than a year by the guerrilla group, which has killed 750 people and wounded some 3,000 in its 25-year fight for an independent homeland.

'Unfortunately Eta is not yet entirely finished,' said Baltasar Garzon, Spain's most famous crime-fighting judge, who is now a Socialist MP. 'The important and unfortunate thing for us is that the Eta infrastructure in Madrid is still intact.'

Spanish political and security officials insist that Eta is politically defeated, with support draining away even in the Basque country, where a peace movement brings thousands on to the streets to protest against every act of violence. But they admit that, even with a only handful of guerrillas active, Eta can still make its deadly presence felt.

'As long as there are a few committed terrorists left, they can plant a bomb or carry out a shooting. The fish has been hooked and is dying but the last lashes of its tail can do tremendous damage,' a Basque politician said recently. Security officials have several times this year reported evidence of Eta plans for a publicity- grabbing attack in Madrid. 'We're not entirely surprised at the attacks,' an Interior Ministry spokesman said after yesterday's blasts. 'We knew there were several terrorists active in Madrid. What we didn't know was where or when they would strike.'

The first explosion went off under a flyover as a military truck was passing. Five soldiers and two civilians died instantly and at least eight people were hurt, including an eight-old boy and his sister, 15, who are both in intensive care. The second bomb exploded exactly an hour later in the elegant Serrano Street, about 200m (200 yards) from the US embassy. A woman had both her legs blown off and two other people were taken to hospital, police said. Seven people were seriously injured and several others were still being treated for minor wounds suffered in the blasts.

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