More than two million people defied the cold and the heavy rain in the Spanish capital Friday, and millions of others came out in the streets all around the country to protest the terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid that left 199 dead and 1,463 injured Thursday.
The demonstrations, which drew as many as 12 million people nationwide, according to estimates, were called by the government with the support of the country’s political parties, trade unions, student movements and social organizations after 10 explosions tore through four trains packed full of commuters on their way to work or school Thursday morning.
In Madrid alone more than two million people took to the streets in the biggest demonstration in the city’s history, even larger than the one held after the frustrated Feb. 23, 1981 coup d’etat. In the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria, a city of 225,000, an estimated 150,000 people protested.
People of all ages began to gather in the streets of downtown Madrid two hours before the official start of the demonstration, holding candles, umbrellas and Spanish, Ecuadorian, Argentine, Mexican and Uruguayan flags.
For the first time in the history of Spain, the royal family took part in the march, which was headed by Crown Prince Felipe and his sisters Elena and Cristina.
Alongside them were Prime Minister José María Aznar and the main candidates for Sunday’s elections Mariano Rajoy of the governing Popular Party and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party as well as the heads of the main labour confederations, Cándido Méndez and José María Fidalgo, and other leading public figures.
They were accompanied by the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi; the prime ministers of France and Portugal, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and José Manuel Durao Barroso; and the foreign ministers of Morocco and Sweden, Mohammed Benaisa and Laila Freivalds.
One of the most frequently heard chants was “We Were All in that Train.” Others were “Peace Forever,” “No to Terror,” “Who and Why?,” “Never Again, Anywhere,” “It Is Not Raining, Madrid Is Crying,” and “Spain United Will Never Be Defeated.”
Although the Spanish government still considers the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language) the main suspect in the bomb blasts, investigators are also following leads pointing to the possible involvement of the al-Qaeda Islamic terrorist network.
Arnaldo Otegi, the spokesman for Batasuna, the outlawed political arm of ETA, said the Basque separatist group had nothing to do with the attacks.
On Friday, a caller speaking in the name of ETA told the Basque newspaper Gara which also has links to the Basque terrorist group that it was not involved in the bombings.
Analysts said this would be the first time ETA has made such a denial. The group generally issues warnings prior to its attacks, and later claims responsibility.
On Thursday, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a London-based Arabic language newspaper, received an e-mail attributed to al-Qaeda, which is held responsible for the Sep. 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
But when asked by IPS in London about the e-mail, a woman at the Al-Quds newspaper said that all they knew was that they received the message, which was sent to other news organizations as well. She mentioned the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Arab-language news network Al-Jazeera.
She said it did not come from an address known to them, and that they could “say nothing about its authenticity.”
In the Madrid demonstration Friday, protesters also chanted “Basques Yes, ETA No” and “ETA and al-Qaeda – the Same Scum.”
Students from a primary school located near the El Pozo train station, where several of the blasts occurred, carried a sign produced by the children themselves reading “Tomorrow we will remember this yesterday forever.”
At noon Friday, the trade unions and small and medium businesses held a 15-minute work stoppage. Cinemas and theaters, museums, cultural centers and bullrings canceled their scheduled activities.
On Thursday, passersby and local residents ignored warnings of the danger of further explosions, rushing to the victims’ aid with water and blankets, leaping onto the tracks to provide first aid, helping the wounded out of the mangled carriages, taking charge of the injured who were wandering around in a daze, and providing support to the rescue teams that arrived on the spot almost immediately.
There was also a massive response to the appeal for blood donations. After two hours, the centers designated for that purpose announced that enough blood had been collected, but some people refused to leave, insisting on donating blood just in case it was needed later.
Taxi drivers offered their services free of charge to those who were searching for their loved ones in hospitals and emergency health centers
A number of the victims were undocumented immigrants. The Council of Ministers decided Friday to grant Spanish citizenship to all wounded immigrants and their families.
Whether or not they were living in Spain, the families of the dead will also be granted Spanish nationality.
At least 13 Latin Americans were killed in the blasts, just a tiny portion of the hundreds of thousands who have flocked to Spain in the past five years, in an unprecedented migration flow.
“I curse these wretches (the terrorists). Why do they take it out on innocent people?” Luis Cisneros, whose brother Oswaldo was killed Thursday, told IPS in Quito, Ecuador.
Cisneros cried as he explained that his brother had traveled to Spain in 2001, was working in a factory, and planned to return to Ecuador in August. Now “I just want the (Ecuadorian) government to help me bring home his body. I hadn’t seen him since he left three years ago.”
“What do young people, workers, women and children have to do with anything?” asked a grieving Cisneros.
*With reporting from Diego Cevallos in Mexico, Juan Carlos Frías in Ecuador, and Sanjay Suri in Britain.
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