Madrid car bomb a setback for peace |

Madrid car bomb a setback for peace

MADRID, Spain – A weekend car bombing in Madrid shattered a nine-month-old cease-fire with Basque separatists and left Spain’s prime minister groping for a way to salvage the nascent peace process.Less than 24 hours before the bomb went off at Madrid’s international airport Saturday, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had sounded upbeat about ending the decades-old conflict in the Basque region when he spoke at a news conference. With elections 15 months away, he had hoped a peace agreement would be part of his legacy.”It is a very major setback,” said historian and political scientist Charles Powell of San Pablo-CEU University in Madrid. “I think he is really stuck.”The bombing was blamed on the Basque separatist group ETA, which declared a cease-fire in March. It left two men missing and injured 26 people. Thousands of terrified holiday travelers were stranded.ETA’s fight for an independent Basque state has killed more than 800 people since the 1960s. But Saturday’s bombing, if definitively linked to the group, would be ETA’s first fatal attack since May 2003.In the aftermath of the bombing, the government suspended plans for peace talks with the separatists. But in Madrid Sunday, some protesters demanded the government abandon the peace process altogether.”Events like yesterday show yet again that all ETA wants to do is kill,” Francisco Jose Alcaraz, president of an association of victims of ETA violence, told several thousand demonstrators in Puerta del Sol, a downtown Madrid plaza.ETA did not claim responsibility for the bombing. But a man who placed a warning call before the attack said he was a representative of the group. Following previous attacks, the group has sometimes waited weeks to claim responsibility.The Interior Ministry said the van used in the bombing was stolen at gunpoint in France on Wednesday by three people who identified themselves as ETA members. The vehicle’s Spanish owner, who reported the carjacking to police, was held captive for three days and freed in France an hour after the bomb went off in Madrid.At the airport, crews searching for two missing men removed tons of concrete and metal at a five-story parking lot that was largely destroyed in the explosion. The men, Ecuadorean immigrants, were believed to have been sleeping inside two separate cars.Because of the size of the blast, officials held out little hope that the pair survived. Their deaths could be a blow for ETA, which in recent years has tried to avoid casualties by attacking empty buildings.Many Spaniards believed more killing by ETA had become unthinkable after the March 2004 terror attacks on four Madrid commuter trains. Those bombings killed 191 people and were blamed on Islamic extremists.Kepa Aulestia, a former ETA member who now opposes the group and works as a political analyst in the Basque region, said ETA will pay a high political price if the missing men are found dead – even among Basque nationalists.”They will be viewed with hatred … If many people despised them before, it will be even greater now,” Aulestia said in an interview.Meanwhile, ETA’s outlawed political wing Batasuna and moderates within ETA who favored negotiations with the government appear weakened.ETA hard-liners, angry over the government’s refusal to make concessions, apparently have concluded the peace process was aimed only at getting the movement to surrender, said Javier Ortiz, a political analyst who works for Basque radio and television.He said Saturday’s explosion was tantamount to the hard-liners saying: “Let’s show them our teeth and that we are not without an operational capacity, that we thought this was about negotiating.”ETA had said its cease-fire was permanent and called for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Zapatero said in June that he believed the truce was sincere and said he would negotiate with ETA – although he ruled out concessions toward Basque independence.Those talks never got off the ground. The government has rejected ETA and Batasuna demands for preliminary gestures such as moving some ETA prisoners to the Basque region and allowing separate talks among Basque political parties on the region’s future.ETA has also criticized the government for refusing to let up on the movement, citing continued arrests of suspected ETA members.Ortiz said Zapatero cannot realistically expect to hold talks with ETA unless he makes some kind of concession on ETA prisoners or Batasuna’s drive to be legalized. But that would embolden a conservative opposition that could gain politically from the setback in peace moves.A Zapatero loss in 2008 elections would be bad news for ETA because the opposition conservative Popular Party would be much less likely to negotiate, Powell said.”I think they have shot themselves in the foot,” he said.

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