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Spain Unites in Anger, Grief Over Attacks

Millions turn out across the nation for memorial observances. Officials favor the theory of a Basque role in the train blasts, but ETA denies involvement.

March 13, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — From this traumatized capital to the conflicted Basque region, millions of Spaniards filed into streets and plazas Friday to show defiance in the face of Spain's worst terrorist attack and to pay tribute to the victims.

As Basque separatists denied involvement in Thursday's synchronized bombings, which killed nearly 200 people and wounded 1,500 others, a stunned nation was struggling Friday to raise its head and proclaim its determination to overcome the previous day's carnage. In every major city and town, residents paused for a 10-minute observance of silence at noon; in Madrid, spontaneous shrines of candles, flowers and handwritten messages sprouted at train stations where men, women and children lost their lives.

In the evening in Madrid, an estimated 2 million Spaniards marched under a driving rain through fountain-adorned plazas, up the wide Paseo de la Castellana boulevard, past the Prado Museum and to the steps of the Atocha train station, to demand an end to political violence. They were led by members of Spain's royal family and senior officials from all over Europe. A sea of umbrella-topped masses filled Madrid's streets for miles.

"We must show the world we are not afraid," said Maria del Carmen Lopez Lopez, 46, who provides care to the elderly.

"Murderers! Murderers!" chanted a crowd both angry and somber. "We were all on that train!"

Debate raged over who was responsible for the 10 blasts that gutted four commuter trains during Thursday's morning rush hour. The government said it continued to favor the theory that Basque separatists staged the attacks, while others suggested that Islamic extremists might be at work.

The militant Basque organization ETA formally denied responsibility Friday evening in a communication with a Basque-language newspaper, as the debate was becoming entangled in election-era politics.

As a host of crestfallen families staggered to an ad hoc morgue on city fairgrounds to identify their relatives' shattered bodies, the death toll climbed Friday to 199 when a 7-month-old Polish girl died. A reporter announcing the baby's death on state television broke down in tears.

Authorities said the dead identified thus far included people of 12 nationalities. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar announced that illegal immigrants who had been injured in the bombings or whose relatives had been killed would be granted Spanish citizenship; heretofore, Aznar's government had been fairly tough on immigrants, many of whom were too afraid to come forward to seek information on missing relatives after the bombings.

In a day of nationwide mourning and protest, the outpouring in Madrid was phenomenal. Families, couples, workers, entire student bodies -- all braved the frigid rain and marched toward the Atocha station, where two trains blew up, in a procession that began at dusk and continued into the night.

Police estimated the crowd, at its peak, at 2 million people, making it one of the largest demonstrations here in a very long time. The city came to a standstill. Nine million more demonstrated across the nation, by police count, from the northern Basque region to Barcelona, to the ancient pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela, and even the Canary Islands. Spain is a country of fierce regional pride and division, bound now by tragedy.

"Whether it was ETA that did this, or Al Qaeda, the important thing is to show solidarity with the victims," said Daniel Berengue, 22, a history student at Madrid's Complutense University. "This could have happened to any one of us. There's a real sense of rejection and condemnation here. And then we have to move on. We can't allow ourselves to be sunken by fear."

Luis Caro, a 29-year-old bank teller, expressed the new vulnerability felt by many in the surging crowd. "Here in Spain we've been accustomed to attacks but never indiscriminate ones against civilians," he said. "I didn't used to come to demonstrations against ETA, but this has been a very harsh blow, and just as these people were killed, this kind of violence can reach anyone who gets on a metro, a train, a bus."

The demonstrators held candles, waved Spanish flags and some wrote slogans on their foreheads: "No to ETA" and "Peace."

Aznar led the process alongside Prince Felipe, heir to the throne, and Princess Cristina -- the first time in Spanish history that members of the royal family have joined in a demonstration.

Many participants in this and the other demonstrations across the country painted their hands white and waved them above their heads, a gesture that gained popularity after the 1997 slaying by ETA of Miguel Angel Blanco, a minor official with Aznar's party whose kidnapping and execution outraged Spaniards and Basques alike.

In Bilbao, the largest of Basque cities, demonstrators were also out in force. An enormous crowd heavy with youths gathered on the steps of City Hall and chanted: "Madrid, amigo, Bilbao esta contigo!" -- Madrid, friend, Bilbao is with you.

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