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Bomb damage spreads in Spain

Both the guerrillas and the prime minister are left nursing their reputations after an attack last month.

January 23, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson and Cristina Mateo-Yanguas | Special to The Times

MADRID — It is difficult to judge whose credibility was more severely damaged by the bomb that leveled a five-story parking garage at Madrid's international airport: the Basque guerrillas who detonated it and their pro-independence supporters or the Spanish prime minister whose political reputation was heavily invested in national peace.

The deadly bombing Dec. 30 ended a "permanent" cease-fire declared by the ETA separatists nine months earlier, a truce that had represented the most promising resolution of nearly four decades of insurgent ambushes and sabotage.

Practically overnight, an agreement that appeared to have ended Western Europe's last armed conflict was suddenly in tatters.

Spaniards now are asking what went wrong, and is there any going back?

Making a rare admission of fault, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero went before a national audience last week and acknowledged a "clear error" in the upbeat assessments of the peace process that he was making until the bombing.

Zapatero has come under criticism for a sluggish response to the attack, which killed two Ecuadorean immigrants, and what appeared to be a failure to grasp the seriousness of the crisis. This was the first time ETA has killed in more than three years, and the attack was one of the group's most destructive blasts.

The prime minister quickly said negotiations with the Basque separatists and their representatives were suspended, and eventually ruled out any dialogue with "perpetrators of violence." But he has refused to declare the peace process dead.

"This is not the moment to speak of the future," Zapatero told the editor of El Pais newspaper, in the only extensive interview he has given since the attack. "Today we must have as our principal objective winning over more citizens from Euskadi [the Basque Country] in favor of ending the violence [and] reaching a great national consensus."

Far from consensus, however, Spain's politicians, already sharply divided along ideological lines, descended into arguments and accusations of even greater fractiousness.

If Zapatero has seemed wobbly in the wake of the attack, ETA and its unarmed supporters have issued statements that bordered on the absurd, suggesting discord within the ranks of the pro-independence Basque community.

ETA, which stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language, said it considered that the peace process continued on track, and, in virtually the same breath, threatened more bombings.

In an especially precarious position is ETA's outlawed but highly visible political wing, Batasuna. Like Zapatero, Batasuna had a lot riding on successful peace talks. It hoped to become a legally recognized party that could sit at the table with its Spanish negotiating partners.

Batasuna leaders appeared to have been caught off guard by the bombing. After the group struggled for days to come up with a response, spokesman Arnaldo Otegi acknowledged that ETA's actions had created "confusion" inside the movement that would require "internal reflection" to sort out.

The attack raised questions among many Spaniards as to whether Batasuna could serve as an effective representative in any peace talks.

Skeptics doubted ETA was ever negotiating in good faith and they asserted that it was instead using the truce to fortify and regroup. Initially, talks were to focus on the government's demand that fighters disarm, and the Basques' demand that prisoners be moved to jails closer to their hometowns. Eventually, however, the government's bottom line of maintaining a constitutionally intact country and the separatists' insistence on independence were mutually exclusive.

Some defenders of the Basque separatist movement argue that ETA acted now out of frustration with the talks, especially after a secret meeting in Turkey last month between representatives of Zapatero's Socialist Party and ETA's founding leader, Jose Urrutikoetxea, alias Josu Ternera.

The attack also may have been the result, experts said, of a shift to a more radical leadership, with people willing to talk to the government, like Urrutikoetxea, being pushed aside.

"Zapatero has been playing the role of the snake charmer, but he was up against an old python with an ax who cut off his discourse of empty reassurances," said Ramon Zallo Elguezabal, an advisor to the Basque regional government and professor at the University of the Basque Country.

As bleak as the prospects seem, several experts thought it unlikely that ETA would launch a full-scale military campaign, if only because the group has been operationally weakened by police crackdowns and isolated by public anger at political violence following attacks by Islamic radicals in 2004.

Less assured, however, is Zapatero's political future. The aftermath of the bombing has burrowed ever-deeper rifts in Spanish political society, providing abundant ammunition to the center-right opposition bloc.

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