Ten terrorist bombs tore through trains and stations along a commuter line at the height of Madrid's morning rush hour Thursday, killing more than 170 people and wounding at least 600 before this weekend's general elections. Officials blamed Basque separatists for the worst terror attack in Spanish history.
"This is mass murder," said a somber Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar following an emergency cabinet meeting, vowing to hunt down the attackers and ruling out negotiations with the ETA separatist group.
"No negotiation is possible or desirable with these assassins who so many times have sown death all around Spain," Aznar said.
The explosives used in the blasts were a type of dynamite that the ETA Basque separatist group normally uses, the Interior Ministry said following tests.
But a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "it's too early to tell (who planted the bombs), we're not ruling anything out."
People streamed away in tears from Madrid's Atocha terminal — where bombs exploded on two trains — as rescue workers carried bodies covered in sheets of gold fabric. The wounded, faces bloodied, sat on curbs and used cellphones to tell loved ones they were alive. Buses were pressed into service as ambulances, and hospitals appealed for blood donations.
Panicked commuters trampled each other, dropping bags and losing their shoes as they tried to escape from Atocha staion. Some fled into dangerous, darkened tunnels.
A senior fire department investigator reported seeing 70 bodies along a platform at El Pozo station, although one corpse had to be retrieved from the roof.
A total of 10 bombs exploded, killing 173 people and injured more than 600, Interior Minister Angel Acebes said. Police found and detonated three others.
The blasts struck about 7:30 a.m. tearing apart trains or platforms on the commuter line running to the Atocha station, a bustling transportation hub in the capital. At least two of the bombs went off in trains that were in the Atocha station.
Worst hit was a double-decker train at the El Pozo station, where two bombs killed 70 people, fire department inspector Juan Redondo said. El Pozo is about 6 miles from Atocha station.
Before the Thursday bombings, ETA had been blamed for more than 800 deaths in its decades-old campaign to carve an independent Basque homeland from territory straddling northern Spain and southwest France.
However, ETA attacks have been on a lesser scale than Thursday's bombings with the largest toll being 21 killed in a supermarket blast in Barcelona in 1987.
Spanish officials had said ETA was against the ropes after the arrest last year of more than 150 members or collaborators in Spain and France, including the leaders of ETA's commando network. Last year, ETA killed three people, compared with 23 in 2000 and 15 in 2001.
"ETA had been looking for a massacre in Spain," Acebes said, citing recent thwarted attacks. "Unfortunately, today it achieved its goal."
He said ETA tried a similar attack on Christmas Eve, placing bombs on two trains bound for a station that was not hit Thursday. He also noted the Feb. 29 police interception of a Madrid-bound van packed with more than 1,100 pounds of explosives. Authorities blamed ETA.
"Therefore, it is absolutely clear and evident that the terrorist organization ETA was looking to commit a major attack," Acebes said. "The only thing that varies is the train station that was targeted."
A top Basque politician, Arnold Otegi, denied the separatists were behind the blasts and blamed "Arab resistance." Many al-Qaida-linked terrorists were captured in Spain or were believed to have operated from there.
Otegi told Radio Popular in San Sebastian that ETA always phones in warnings before it attacks. Acebes said there was no warning before Thursday's attack.
"The modus operandi, the high number of victims and the way it was carried out make me think, and I have a hypothesis in mind, that yes it may have been an operative cell from the Arab resistance," Otegi said, noting that Spain's government backed the Iraq war despite domestic opposition.
President Bush called Aznar to express solidarity and sympathy, condemning "this vicious attack of terrorism in the strongest possible terms," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said he spoke with his Spanish counterpart and offered sympathy and solidarity in the war on terrorism.
"The United States stands resolutely with Spain in the fight against terrorism in all its forms and against the particular threat that Spain faces from the evil of ETA terrorism," Powell said.
Rescue workers were overwhelmed, said Enrique Sanchez, an ambulance driver who went to Santa Eugenia station, about six miles southeast of the Atocha station.
"There was one carriage totally blown apart. People were scattered all over the platforms. I saw legs and arms. I won't forget this ever. I've seen horror," Sanchez said.
Shards of twisted metal were scattered by rails in the Atocha station at the spot where an explosion severed a train in two.
"I saw many things explode in the air ... it was horrible," said Juani Fernandez, 50, a civil servant who was on the platform waiting to go to work.
"People started to scream and run, some bumping into each other and as we ran there was another explosion. I saw people with blood pouring from them, people on the ground," Fernandez said.
"Those responsible for this tragedy will be arrested and they will pay very dearly for it," Acebes said at Atocha station.
The attacks traumatized Spain on the eve of Sunday's general election.
The campaign was largely dominated by separatist tensions in regions like the Basque country, with both the ruling conservative Popular Party and the opposition Socialists ruling out talks with ETA.
The government convened anti-ETA rallies nationwide for Friday evening and announced three days of mourning.
"What a horror," said the Basque regional president, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, who insisted ETA does not represent the Basque people. "When ETA attacks, the Basque heart breaks into a thousand pieces," he said in the Basque capital Vitoria.
"This is one of those days that you don't want to live through," said opposition Socialist party spokesman Jesus Caldera. "ETA must be defeated," referring to the group as "those terrorists, those animals."
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called the attacks terrorist atrocities and a "disgusting assault on the very principle of European democracy."
Straw said that Britain stood "shoulder to shoulder" with Spain and was ready to send any kind of material help needed.
Elsewhere, European Parliament President Pat Cox said the bomb attacks amounted to "a declaration of war on democracy."
"No more bombs, no more dead," Cox said in Spanish before a hushed legislature in Strasbourg, France. "It is an outrageous, unjustified and unjustifiable attack on the Spanish people and Spanish democracy."