Toy car explodes, killing woman in northern Spanish town

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The Independent Online

One woman was killed and two children seriously injured when a bomb in a toy car exploded at the Spanish beach resort of San Sebastian on Monday.

A toy car carried by a toddler to his grandmother's vehicle exploded on Monday, killing the woman and seriously injuring the child and his brother.

Authorities said preliminary forensic analyses revealed no traces of a bomb, suggesting an accident. However, investigators had not ruled out the possibility that the explosion was an attack by Basque separatists.

The 10:45am blast in this port and resort town in the northern Basque region rattled windows and created confusion, but caused little damage outside the vehicle. The 16–month–old boy and was rushed to the Aranzazu hospital in serious condition. A brother was slightly injured.

The port of San Sebastian is packed this time of year with tourists, who jam the city's wide beach and seaside hotels and restaurants.

The blast occurred inside the family vehicle when the boy was playing with a remote control toy car after leaving a bar–restaurant owned by his aunt. Reports described the toy as a gasoline–powered remote control vehicle meant for adults.

The aunt told police two toys, a giraffe and the toy car had been left at the bar during the weekend and she had given them to her nephews. Police had initially suspected the car was booby–trapped with an explosive device.

The boy with the toy was rushed to the Nuestra Senora Aranzazu hospital by a press photographer. National radio said he was undergoing a 14–hour surgical procedure for a cranial fracture and brain hemmorhaging and treatment for burns. The other child, whose age was not known immediately, had only light injuries.

The police identified the grandmother only as a 62–year–old woman.

The bar–restaurant is located in the old quarter of the city, a haven for youth gangs sympathetic to the armed separatist group ETA and who frequently set fire to banks and public buildings or firebomb patrol cars.

Although no one took responsibility for the blast, ETA has been blamed for 12 killings so far this year, including several by car bombs. It has killed some 800 people in its 33–year violent campaign to carve out an independent Basque homeland from a region straddling northern Spain and southwest France.

The blast comes just two days after a car bomb ripped apart the Hotel Cala in the resort of Salou. Saturday's bomb caught holidaymakers in pyjamas who were shepherded into the street with the alarm siren still ringing in their ears.

Lucia, a young mother from Madrid, had five days left of her holiday in the resort of Salou but was taking no chances. "We're leaving right now," she announced, re-entering the shattered foyer of the Hotel Cala to collect her bags. Katy from Paris, viewing the burnt-out vehicle that exploded after police were warned of an imminent Eta bomb, felt the same. "I want to go home. I'm frightened." Her friend Chantal, incredulous at finding herself a target of Basque separatists, exclaimed: "I thought they killed only important people."

More than half the 800 guests, 13 of whom received cuts and grazes from the flying glass of Saturday's bomb planted by the Basque separatists Eta, were Britons, French, Italians and Russians. Of the injured one was British, one Irish.

Their narrow escape prompts the question: has Eta made the Costas too dangerous to visit?

No foreign tourist has yet been killed by Eta. Visitors to Spain are more likely to die in a car crash or fall from their hotel balcony than in a terrorist attack.

But the Foreign Office has warned tourists visiting Spain to be on their guard. "Future attacks may not carry warnings and bombs may explode prematurely. Statistically your chances of being caught up in a terrorist outrage are low, but there is still a possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Were there to be a further attack in a tourist area, the chances of some tourist being involved would be relatively high given the several millions of foreign tourists in Spain during the summer."

Saturday's bomb, which went off at 8am local time, was meticulously planned. The white Renault 25 with a false Cordoba number plate was stolen in the Basque town of San Sebastian and sat in front of the Hotel Cala Font for a week. Basque police were warned an hour before the blast, and the chief of the paramilitary Civil Guard reckons the bombers travelled from the Basque Country to the Catalan coast to plant the device, then returned home.

Since sufficient warning was given, the attack seemed designed to produce tension and fear ­ and Europe-wide impact at the peak holiday season ­ rather than kill tourists. Duncan Hess, a BBC employee who was on holiday nearby, said there would have been "untold casualties" if there had been no warning.

He said: "If there hadn't been a warning, and you really don't like to exaggerate these things, but there would have been untold casualties. The place is in a hell of a mess." Eta has conducted summer campaigns in Spain's popular tourist resorts before, and Salou has been hit often in recent years, but this year's offensive is the fiercest and most meticulously planned so far. It began in March with bomb blasts in the town of Roses near Barcelona, in which a local policeman died, and in the Valencian resort of Gandia. Eta warned then that "in order to avoid similar undesirable circumstances, foreign tourists should stay away from Spain". Tourists themselves have not been explicitly threatened, and even after this weekend's attack, hoteliers report concern among visitors but no actual cancellations.

Rather, Eta is aiming at centres of tourism with the idea of inflicting maximum economic damage on Spain's tourism industry during the peak holiday period to put the government in Madrid under pressure at home and internationally to accede to their demands for talks. In June an Eta plot to attack the Plymouth to Santander ferry was uncovered; on 25 July a huge bomb was planted at Malaga airport, forcing thousands of British and German tourists to wait tensely while it was defused.

Security services are on maximum alert the length of the Mediterranean and have foiled other attacks. Last week two small bombs were deactivated along the AVE high-speed train link from Madrid to Seville, delaying thousands of passengers, but avoiding a catastrophic derailment.

But only Eta's own mistakes have prevented bloodshed on other occasions. Olaia Castresana died near the resort of Alicante last month when explosives she was handling blew up.

She became the latest among a generation of young Eta militants willing not only to kill but to risk their own lives for the cause. Castresana, like four young Basques killed when their van laden with dynamite exploded in Bilbao last year, was hailed as a martyr and hero by sympathisers. But others may conclude that simple human error, or faulty equipment, could produce tragedy.

Eta, which has waged its armed campaign for independence from Madrid for three decades, traditionally attacks policemen, conservative leaders or military figures. Of the 800 or so deaths of the past 30 years, many were members of the Guardia Civil, Spain's national police force, and politicians. Latterly it widened the net to include local Basque politicians, socialists, journalists, artists and intellectuals who favour dialogue rather than confrontation.

A 14-month ceasefire designed to woo the conservative Basque National Party, and through them Jose Aznar's government, collapsed in January last year amid a fierce internal debate won by new hardline Eta leaders who consider all political opponents as fascists or lackeys of Madrid.

This hardline approach is repudiated by most Basques, who inflicted a crushing defeat on Eta's political wing, now known as Batasuna, in regional elections in May. For a moment it looked as though a more conciliatory separatist current might emerge and seek to rebuild links with the world outside its own sectarian confines. That hasn't happened yet.

Eta is not interested in currying favour or public support, but neither does it appear to consider foreign visitors fair game. It wants to force the government to the negotiating table by spectacular shows of strength.

The militant separatists may hope that London or Berlin, concerned for the safety of millions of Britons and Germans flocking to their beloved Costas, might nudge Madrid to get its act together to solve the 40-year Basque conflict, perhaps by supplementing ever fiercer security measures with a political initiative.

People's choice

By David Brown

British tourists take more than 12 million holidays in Spain each year, adding £8bn to the country's economy.

Spain was the first foreign mass-market destination and still attracts more than 40 per cent of the British package holiday market. Mass tourism from Britain started in the 1960s, with the Costa Brava.

The British are by far the biggest group of foreign visitors, accounting for more than a fifth of the 52 million visitors per year estimated by the World Tourist Organisation in 1999.

Britons take 36.6 million foreign holiday trips a year, according to the Office for National Statistics. Spain is by far the most popular destination for stays of four nights or more, accounting for 28 per cent of visits ­ compared with 10 per cent for France. The Canaries alone attract 3.7 million visits. In the Balearics, Majorca gets 2.1 million, Ibiza 706,000 and Minorca 654,000. The single most popular Spanish region is Costa Del Sol.

In response to more competition from Greece and Turkey for the budget market, Spain has tried to attract higher-spending travellers and those on weekend breaks.

Ibiza has become famous for its "clubbing" holidays for young people while Barcelona attracts more sophisticated holidaymakers.

Spain is the third most popular foreign holiday destination in the world, behind France and America. Numbers of visitors have continued to grow at 10 per cent a year. It is particularly popular among holidaymakers from northern Europe,especially Scandinavia.

Tourism remains one of Spain's most important industries, earning 4 per cent of the gross domestic product and employing a tenth of the workforce.