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03-14-2004, 05:59 PM

Spain Floods Voting Booths After Attacks
Spain Votes in Election Overshadowed by al-Qaida Claim of Responsibility for Madrid Bombings

The Associated Press

MADRID, Spain March 14 Driven by anger over Spain's worst terror attack, voters flooded polling stations Sunday, many vowing to punish the government for backing the U.S.-led war in Iraq and making their country a target for al-Qaida.

Two hours before polls were to close, 63 percent of registered voters had cast ballots, a 7.5 percent increase over four years ago, Spain's electoral commission said.

Many said Thursday's bombings, which killed 200 people and wounded 1,500, was a decisive factor, along with the government's much-criticized handling of the initial investigation.

"The Popular Party has made me lose faith in politics," said Juan Rigola, 23, a biologist in Barcelona. "It deserves to lose and to see the Spanish people turn against them."

Joaquin Leguina, a former president of Madrid's regional government, commented, "Spain has never voted in such a tragic situation. There's a feeling of anguish, sadness, horror."

Polls were to close at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. EST) except for the Canary Islands off West Africa, which stay open one hour more.

The electorate of 34.5 million included about 1.9 million mostly young voters added to the rolls since the 2000 general election.

Until the bombing, the conservative Popular Party was projected by most polls to beat the Socialists, although perhaps without retaining their majority in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies.

But the disaster, which the government initially blamed on the Basque separatist group ETA, threw the election wide open. The attack was followed by emotional rallies across the country.

Critics accused the government, which had trumpeted its crackdown on ETA, of manipulating the investigation for political gain. That struck a chord with voters.

"I didn't intend to vote, but changed my mind," said Javi Martin, 30, who works for a TV station in Madrid. "And not because of the attacks, but because of the responsibility of the Popular Party. They gave out information drop by drop. It would have benefited them if it were ETA."

Some voters were angry at outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, accusing him of making Spain a target for Islamic extremists because of his support for the Iraq war, despite the opposition of most Spaniards. Aznar sent 1,300 Spanish troops to Iraq after the conflict and 11 have died.

"I wasn't planning to vote, but I am here today because the Popular Party is responsible for murders here and in Iraq," said Ernesto Sanchez-Gey, 48, who voted in Barcelona.

Other voters, however, expressed support for the ruling party precisely because it endorsed the Iraq war, and for its crackdown on ETA.

Mari Carmen Pinadero Martinez, 58, a housewife, said she "voted to help the government end terrorism" as she cast her ballot near the downtown Atocha railway station where trains were bombed.

In El Pozo northeast of Madrid, site of one of the four blasts, a ruined train car was in clear view of the polling station as were flowers for the victims, signs stating "Paz" (Peace) and dozens of lit candles.

Some of the voters, teary-eyed, held onto relatives and friends for support.

The Popular Party entered the day hoping to retain not only the prime minister's office, but perhaps also its absolute majority in parliament. That seemed unlikely given recent events.

The Interior Ministry has announced five arrests in the bombing, including three Moroccans, and discovery of a videotape in which a man speaking Arabic says Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network claimed responsibility for the attack.

In Morocco, authorities said one of the five detainees had been under surveillance for months and was suspected of ties to Islamic radicalism.

On Sunday, a Basque-language daily published a statement by ETA in which the group for a second time denied involvement in the attacks.

Now, the government faces a possible backlash for its support of the Iraq war in the aftermath of the Madrid terrorist attack.

A handful of young protesters screamed "murderer" at Mariano Rajoy, the ruling party candidate for prime minister, as he cast his vote in an elementary school outside Madrid. "We did not want to go to war!" they shouted.

Rajoy declined to comment on the arrests or videotape. "These elections come at a time of great pain," he said.

As Aznar voted in Madrid, some bystanders cheered him while others shouted, "Manipulator!"

"All Signs Point to al-Qaida," the country's largest circulation newspaper, El Pais, said in a front-page banner headline Sunday.

The videotape was recovered from a trash basket near a Madrid mosque after an Arabic-speaking man called a Madrid TV station to say it was there, Interior Minister Angel Acebes said.

The political campaign was bitter between Rajoy, 48, a veteran Cabinet minister under Aznar, and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, 43, a lawyer, member of parliament and the Socialist party's general-secretary.

Before the attacks, polls gave Rajoy's party a 3-5 percentage point lead over the Socialists in the race for the 350-seat Congress of Deputies. In the outgoing legislature, Aznar's party had 183 seats.

Aznar did not seek re-election, complying with a pledge to not seek a third four-year term.

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