Fear and Loathing Return

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Spaniards had almost begun to forget the bad old days of car bombs, kidnapings, and bullets in the back of the neck. For more than 18 months, the trademarks of the Basque separatist group ETA had been missing from everyday life. Having made almost no political gains after a campaign of violence that spanned 30 years and had taken more than 750 lives, the men and women who run ETA had unilaterally called a truce. It was a move calculated to put pressure on Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar--himself a survivor of an ETA car bomb--to seek some Ireland-like solution to the nation's most intractable problem: the demand of a minority of Basques for an independent state encompassing a chunk of northern Spain and crossing the border into France.

Then, last Friday morning, fear returned to the streets. An ETA car bomb exploded in central Madrid, then a second detonated 20 minutes later, apparently the abandoned getaway car. The first blast instantly killed Lieut. Colonel Pedro Antonio Blanco, 47, an economist in the army service corps. A parked Renault Clio exploded on the street corner where Blanco regularly waited for an official car to take him to work. Several people were injured in this and the blast that followed, although none seriously.

ETA had let it be known at the start of December that the days of peace were numbered, that its truce was over. During it, the separatists had seen 49 of their members caught in police raids in France and Spain, plus the seizure of large amounts of explosives, arms and documents. The Madrid government has admitted only two "contacts" during that time--one with representatives of Euskal Herritarrok, a political party closely linked to ETA, another between the separatists and government representatives in Switzerland last May, which broke down after less than an hour. Although its aim is an independent Basque state, short-term demands include the transfer to the Basque region of all ETA prisoners in Spanish jails. So far, only 135 of a total of more than 400 have been sent back to be closer to their families.

Security officials have been on full alert since the cease-fire ended. They had reason to believe that Madrid would be the target, and just before Christmas intercepted two vans en route to the capital packed with a total of almost two tons of explosives. A third car bomb was discovered near Bilbao.

On being told of Friday's killing, Aznar canceled a scheduled political visit to the Canary Islands and remained in Madrid to offer his condolences to the family of Lieut. Colonel Blanco. He warned ETA that the government would not give an inch in the face of the renewed violence. "Their terrorism is a sign of their weakness, not strength," said Aznar, whose firm line is part of his platform for general elections he has called for March 12. An irony of the latest ETA atrocity is that some commentators--among them non-violent Basque nationalists--think it may serve to increase Aznar's slender five-point lead over the opposition Socialists. But if terrorism continues to stalk the streets, there will be no winners in Spain.

Reported by Jane Walker/Madrid