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THE WORLD | TERROR IN MADRID

U.S. Urges Vigilance by Transit Officials

March 13, 2004|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The federal government Friday urged operators of the nation's transportation network to step up security precautions, as Bush administration officials began sharing information with them about the bombing attack on Madrid's rail system.

But the Department of Homeland Security, lacking specific evidence of new threats, decided not to raise the nation's already elevated level of security awareness.

During the Thursday morning commuter rush in Spain, 10 explosions, minutes apart, tore through trains at three commuter stations.

The death toll reached 199 on Friday; more than 1,400 people were wounded.

As Spanish authorities seek to determine whether the attack was the work of Basque separatists or others, concern soared over the possibility of attacks elsewhere.

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security, said U.S. precautions hinged largely on the outcome of the probe. Investigators are trying to determine whether the blasts were the work of an international terrorist group known to be focused on the United States -- Al Qaeda or one of its allies -- or the work of ETA, a Basque separatist group that has concentrated its operations in Spain.

Hutchinson said the complexity of the operation raised the level of concern, because coordinated, fine-tuned attacks are a hallmark of Al Qaeda operations.

"We do know that Al Qaeda looks to hit us -- hit us hard -- and that mass transit is something they've consistently referenced," he said.

Hutchinson, speaking in a conference call with reporters, said his agency had distributed reports on the bombings in Madrid to the U.S. network of transportation operators -- air, long-distance rail and bus lines, and local mass transit -- accompanied by a call for heightened vigilance.

He said law enforcement agencies had increased their operations at train stations and their efforts to protect mass transit routes.

Additional explosives-detection teams have been deployed, he said.

Hutchinson also said that passengers were being asked to pay more attention to their surroundings, in particular looking out for suspicious or unattended packages and backpacks and watching for suspicious behavior.

Law enforcement officers were being dispatched to ride on transit lines, Hutchinson said, and Amtrak reported that it had increased its use of officers in rail stations and on trains.

Transit centers have been seen as potential terrorist targets for several years. But Hutchinson said there had been no suggestion picked up by intelligence networks that terrorist groups were "considering such an attack in the near term" in the United States.

He would not say whether there had been any intelligence suggesting an attack in Spain in recent days.

Hutchinson also said that machines that can warn of biological weapons attacks had been set up at some mass transit points, but that no additional detectors had been deployed since the Madrid attack.

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