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Former Spanish leader testifies in bomb inquiry

Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar on Monday defended his government’s response to the Madrid train bombings in keenly awaited testimony before lawmakers investigating the massacre.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar defended his government’s response to the Madrid train bombings in keenly awaited testimony Monday before lawmakers investigating the massacre.

In opening remarks, Aznar said criticism that his government was too quick to blame the armed Basque separatist group ETA for the attack was unfair considering opposition politicians had already made that charge.

“I have been accused of being eager to blame the massacre on the terrorist gang ETA. If this were the case, one must admit that others beat me to it,” Aznar said.

The government of Spain’s northern Basque region also immediately blamed ETA and so did officials of the then-opposition Socialist Party.

Aznar began his address by remembering the 191 people killed in the March 11 attack, now thought to have been carried out by Islamic extremists with links to al-Qaida. He said his government’s security forces acted quickly and efficiently after the train bombings and were forthcoming with information as it emerged.

Anzar denies party lied
Aznar was called to testify by center-left parties that allege that his Popular Party underestimated the threat of Islamic terrorism in Spain and misled Spaniards by continuing to blame ETA for the train bombing after evidence of an Islamic link emerged.

Critics say the government’s primary concern was trying to salvage national elections three days later, amid fears that Islamic involvement in the attacks would be seen as revenge for Aznar’s support of the Iraq war in the face of vehement opposition at home.

Aznar denied his party lied when it blamed ETA.

“A search has been under way for the smoking gun of the alleged lie of the government I presided over,” Aznar said. “After months of investigation, after so many hours of testimony, that evidence has not appeared. We told the truth about what we knew.”

Aznar’s testimony was expected to focus on what former Interior Minister Angel Acebes and former Foreign Minister Ana Palacio have already told the commission: The attack was unpredictable, most assailants and ringleaders are already in jail and the Popular Party never misled voters.

Link to Iraq policy?
The 16-member commission, which began hearings July 6, has focused in part on whether the bombings were linked to Aznar’s support for last year’s U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Despite the war’s unpopularity among Spaniards, Aznar sent 1,300 troops to support the military occupation. The Madrid bombings were regarded by many to be retribution for that support, and Aznar’s conservative government lost elections to the Socialists days later.

Other goals of the commission were to examine whether the attack could have been prevented and to strengthen defenses against another one.

The hearings have highlighted key aspects of the bombing: how relatively easy and inexpensive it is to attack undefended urban targets despite precautions and the growing threat of Islamic terrorism in this country, also used as a staging ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Fifty-one people have been detained, of which 16, mostly Moroccans, were jailed on provisional charges of mass murder or terrorism.

Zapatero is scheduled to testify on Dec. 13. The hearings conclude Dec. 15 with a final report to parliament.