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Spanish party leader survives Eta car bomb

TERROR IN MADRID: Basque separatists' attempt to kill leading politician condemned by main parties as threat to democracy

in Madrid

Spain's conservative opposition leader, Jose Maria Aznar, walked away with minor head injuries yesterday after a bomb destroyed his armoured car in the centre of Madrid. Sixteen people were hurt, six seriously, 15 cars burnt out and and two buildings reduced to rubble.

The attack, thought to have been the work of the Madrid Command of the Basque separatist organisation Eta, was followed shortly afterwards by an explosion in a different part of the city that disposed of the getaway car - standard Eta practice. Mr Aznar was kept in hospital overnight for observation.

The attack is the latest in a string of meticulously chosen actions by Eta - now the only large-scale domestic terrorist organisation operating in Western Europe.

The first fatal attack this year was on two policemen in Bilbao on 13 January. Ten days later, the PP's leader in the Basque Country, Gregorio Ordonez, was shot in the head, the first assassination of a politician claimed by Eta in three years.

On Monday last week, it shot dead a police brigadier in the Basque city of San Sebastian. However, the notorious Madrid Command has been dormant since July when three people, one an army general, died in a huge city centre car bomb.

Yesterday's attack, had it succeeded, could have had a cataclysmic impact comparable with the assassination of Franco's chosen successor in 1973, and it has struck fear across the political spectrum. One legal observer noted that if Mr Aznar had been killed, "we would have gone back to 1936", the start of the Civil War. Every main party in the country condemned the attack as a threat to the country's young democracy, with the exception of Eta's political wing, Herri Batasuna.

Jose Maria Aznar, the possible successor to Felipe Gonzalez as Prime Minister, leads a party that embodies the principle of a single, centralised Spain, a Francoist tradition he has done little to break. The PP, running 12 per cent ahead of the ruling Socialists in opinion polls, has made little effort to win support from the autonomous regions, despite the ruling parties of the three most important - Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country - all being conservative.

Earlier this week, Mr Aznar reiterated his rejection of separatist tendencies, saying "someone has to define the limits of a policy of autonomy [of the regions]". Spain should think in terms of "cohesion, entirety, firmness and strength", he said, using the "Espanolista" language that could hardly be more offensive to regional forces.

There was speculation yesterday that Eta might be targeting the ruling Socialists as much as the PP - taking advantage of the weakness of Mr Gonzalez's government, which has been battered for months by allegations that it was behind anti-Eta death squads in the Eighties.

The attack came a day after Judge Baltazar Garzon formally charged a clutch of former Interior Ministry officials with organising and funding Gal anti-terrorist squads that killed more than 20 Eta members then.

The Gal, the judge declared on Tuesday, were armed and paid by the Interior Ministry and had responded "to the intense activity of the terrorist organisation Eta Militar `with the same weapons' - assassinations and illegal detentions - that were all outside the rule of law."

Shortly after the attack on Mr Ordonez in January, Eta warned that political leaders, as well as military or police figures, would be possible targets, a threat repeated last Sunday in the Basque newspaper Egunkaria.

Eta leaders said, referring to the Ordonez killing: "Professional politicians have understood that the consequences of prolonging the conflict will affect them all and every one of them must make efforts to find a reasonable solution." None the less, yesterday's attack caught police completely unawares.

The government has frequently claimed victory over Eta and, in 1992, announced the arrest in France of its entire leadership. Only last year, however, the Interior Minister said 10 units were operating in Spain.

In recent years, the government has been "reinserting" hundreds of long- term Eta prisoners into civilian life - fearing that, with their highly organised prison network, they presented more of a hazard behind bars than outside.