Image: Madrid car bomb scene.
Sergio Perez  /  Reuters
Spanish police and rescue workers inspect the scene after a car bomb exploded in Madrid on Wednesday.
updated 5/25/2005 1:28:36 PM ET 2005-05-25T17:28:36

A powerful car bomb exploded Wednesday in Madrid after a warning from the armed Basque separatist group ETA, police said, the latest in a string of attacks since Spain’s prime minister offered talks with the group if it renounces violence.

Eighteen people were slightly injured in the blast about 9:30 a.m. in a working-class district in the northeast of the Spanish capital, said emergency medical department spokeswoman Beatriz Martin. Only one person — a security guard at a car dealership — had to be hospitalized, Martin said.

Police had cordoned off the area after an anonymous caller to the Basque newspaper Gara, which often serves as a mouthpiece for ETA, said a bomb would explode inside a Renault van.

The blast sent up a large column of black smoke and damaged about 20 buildings, shattering windows and scarring facades.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, speaking in a previously scheduled Senate session, condemned the blast and insisted that “the only fate that the terrorist group ETA has is to lay down weapons and dissolve.” He did not mention his offer of talks with ETA.

Police estimate the bomb contained 40-44 pounds of explosives, Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso told reporters.

Alonso said ETA remained “alive, active and operative,” despite the arrest of more than 200 suspected members in recent years.

He also said Spanish society was now rife with speculation over whether the government had already begun contacts with ETA — which the government denied — and insisted its fight against the group “would benefit tremendously if we all managed to lower this level of noise.”

The blast was a clear show of force from ETA as it gears up for possible negotiations with the government, said Eduardo Uriarte, who was once condemned to death as a convicted ETA commando member and served 12 years in jail after the sentence was commuted. He now rejects the group and works as a political analyst and peace activist.

“ETA needs to show force. It cannot give signs of weakness. It will continue to attack to show that it can do harm,” he said in an interview.

Kepa Aulestia, another former ETA member, said the attack was ETA’s way of building up leverage. “ETA cannot get down on its knees. At the negotiating table, it has to show up with cards,” he said, predicting more attacks during the tourist season this summer.

The blast was the sixth blamed on ETA since Zapatero announced earlier this month he was willing to hold talks with the separatist group if it renounced its decades-old campaign of violence.

The opposition conservative Popular Party has criticized Zapatero’s initiative as a premature, unwarranted overture to what it calls an active terrorist group.

The party’s spokesman in the Senate, Pio Garcia Escudero, said the bombing “does not look like a desire to negotiate but an attempt to exert pressure.”

Four bombs exploded at industrial sites in the Basque region on May 15, two days after Parliament endorsed Zapatero’s drive for the first talks with ETA since 1999. Two people were slightly injured. Last weekend, a small bomb exploded in the Basque town of Zarauz. No one was hurt.

ETA had not been blamed for an attack in Madrid since February.

The group is blamed for more than 800 deaths since the late 1960s in a campaign of bombings and shootings aimed creation of an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France.

But it has not staged a fatal attack since May 2003, and the government says the group has been seriously weakened by waves of arrests in recent years. Zapatero cites these factors as reasons for trying to launch a peace process even though ETA has not declared a cease-fire or made any other prior concession.

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