MADRID, Spain — In the most devastating terrorist attack in Spanish history, 10 bombs that detonated minutes apart ripped through crowded commuter trains at three Madrid stations early Thursday, killing nearly 200 people, wounding 1,400 and sending the capital into convulsions of shock and horror three days before a national election.
Authorities immediately blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for the deadliest wave of terrorism seen in Europe in almost two decades. But the scale of carnage went far beyond anything the separatists had ever carried out and led to speculation that other groups might be responsible.
Interior Minister Angel Acebes initially said it was “absolutely clear” that ETA was responsible.
Late Thursday, however, he went before reporters to say police had recovered a stolen van with seven bomb detonators and a tape recording of Koranic verses read in Arabic. The van was found in a suburb where the targeted trains originated, he said.
“I have instructed security forces not to discard any line of investigation,” Acebes said.
A short time later, an Arabic-language newspaper in London said it had received a letter purporting to claim responsibility for the bombings in the name of al-Qaida, having “infiltrated the heart of Europe.”
The rush-hour blasts paralyzed Madrid. Political parties canceled what remained of their election campaigns, the right-wing government of Prime Minster Jose Maria Aznar declared three days of mourning, and frantic relatives searched for loved ones at morgues and hospitals.
“This is mass murder,” an ashen Aznar said after an emergency Cabinet meeting. “The date of March 11 now holds its place in infamy.”
A hellish scene of destruction and anguish repeated itself at the three stations, including Atocha, the largest in Madrid and a hub for subways and long-distance trains just south of the famed Prado Museum.
About 7:40 a.m., three bombs shattered a commuter train that had just pulled into Atocha. Minutes later, four explosions ravaged another train a short distance from the station. Another bomb exploded at the Santa Eugenia station, two stops away, followed by two bombs in a train at the El Pozo del Tio Raimundo station, two more stops down the line. The three stations anchor a nine-mile stretch of commuter railway into Madrid.
The Interior Ministry said the explosives and detonation devices in all 10 bombs — crammed into backpacks and bags left on the targeted trains or on station platforms — resembled those used by ETA in previous attacks.
Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, rescue workers pulled bodies and pieces of bodies from the shells of passenger cars that had been packed with workaday Spaniards, students and immigrants.
At Atocha, the dead and dying lay alongside the tracks or in a makeshift triage center, covered by blankets and attended by frantic medics. Burned and bloodied survivors staggered from the wreckage.
By nightfall, authorities had counted 192 dead, and many of the injured were in critical condition. Several children and pregnant women were among those killed, Spanish television reported. Identification was difficult because of the condition of the bodies, a coroner’s official said.
There were conflicting theories about who carried out the attacks.
A shadowy Islamic extremist group, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, claimed responsibility for striking at “the heart of the crusade,” according to the letter that newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi said it had received. The same group faxed a letter to the paper to claim responsibility for deadly suicide bombings in Istanbul, Turkey, in November.
A number of alleged supporters of al-Qaida-style terrorist networks have been arrested in Spain.
Acebes, the interior minister, said he continued to believe that the main suspect was ETA.
Normally, ETA owns up to its attacks. An outlawed political wing of ETA denied the group’s involvement and sought to shift the blame to Islamic militants. But numerous other Basque political leaders joined their Spanish counterparts in blaming ETA and in condemning the bloodshed.
The targeting of civilians for wholesale slaughter is out of character with most of the attacks carried out by ETA guerrillas in more than 30 years of fighting for secession from Spain. But the militants — many of their leaders jailed and support for the organization flagging — are said to have been seeking a high-profile, dramatic way to reassert themselves.
Thirteen bombs were planted in the trains and stations, Interior Ministry officials said. The three that failed to explode were disposed of by police.
Each contained about 15 kilograms of a type of dynamite used by ETA, the officials said.
Suspected ETA members were intercepted by authorities last month as they headed for Madrid with 1,000 pounds of explosives, the ministry said. Police foiled a plot to blow up a train in Madrid on Christmas Eve, a scheme also attributed to ETA.
International condemnation and solidarity were swift. President Bush telephoned the king and Aznar and, in Washington, said, “We weep with the families.”