By Isambard Wilkinson in Madrid and Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor
The Spanish government claimed last night to have smashed the terrorist cell responsible for the Madrid train bombings after the suspected mastermind blew himself up with four accomplices as a crack anti-terrorist unit tried to raid their hideout.
Forensic experts examining the devastated block of flats in the Madrid suburb of Leganes believe that the gang leader, 35-year-old Serhane ben Abdelmajid Farkhet, known as “The Tunisian”, was among those who killed themselves.
Angel Acebes, the interior minister, claimed that the deaths on Saturday night, along with a spate of arrests following the murder of 191 people on Madrid commuter trains, meant the terrorist cell had been virtually destroyed.
|Serhane ben Abdelmajid Farkhet|
“The core group of those who carried out the terrorist act have been detained or died in the collective suicide,” Mr Acebes said.
“We have to highlight the magnificent work done by the security forces.”
Mr Acebes said he believed that further attacks planned by the cell had been averted by the death of Farkhet. Police said at least 22lb of dynamite and 200 detonators of the type used in the railway attacks had been found in the flat.
The badly mutilated body of one militant was found at the bottom of the flats’ communal swimming pool still wearing an explosive belt of the type used by Palestinian suicide bombers.
“They were going to keep on attacking because some of the explosives were prepared, packed and connected to detonators,” Mr Acebes said. The gang was also responsible for planting an unexploded bomb on the tracks of the Madrid-Seville high-speed train on Friday, he said.
Despite his confidence, Mr Acebes was leaving himself a hostage to fortune as he admitted that two or three of the gang may have escaped the siege in Leganes before the area could be sealed. Spanish officials issued three new names of men they wish to trace.
Last month, Mr Acebes helped to stoke public anger against the centre-Right government of Jose Maria Aznar by insisting for days that the Madrid attacks were the work of the Basque separatist group Eta.
The Socialists, led by the prime minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, were swept to power partly by the wave of anger that swept through Spain after the Madrid bombings – which many blamed on Spain’s involvement in Iraq.
Mr Zapatero says he will withdraw Spanish peacekeepers from Iraq after a new government is installed in Baghdad, but he is under strong pressure from the United States and Britain not to undermine the political transition.
Spanish investigators, tracing the SIM card of a mobile telephone that had been rigged as a timer on an unexploded bomb in the March 11 Madrid commuter attacks, have so far charged 15 people.
Of those charged before Saturday night’s raid, six have been charged with mass murder and nine others with collaborating with or belonging to a terrorist organisation. Eleven are Moroccan.
Police believe that the cell is linked to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which appears to be connected to, or at least inspired, by al-Qa’eda.
On Saturday evening, security forces traced the whereabouts of the cell’s mastermind to the southern multi-ethnic suburb of Leganes. But as security forces attempted to move residents discreetly out of the area, they were spotted by the gunmen, who opened fire.
As they exchanged shots, they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great). After a two-hour siege, a unit of the the Grupo Especial Operaciones (GEO), Spain’s special anti-terrorist unit, tried to blast its way into the first-floor flat.
But as the first officer entered, the gang members set off a bomb and blew themselves up, also killing one policemen and wounding 11 others.
The special forces policeman killed was named as 41-year-old Javier Torrontera. He was married and had two children.
Working under floodlights, with a hydraulic beam holding up the devastated four-storey building, forensic officers picked their way through the rubble in search of evidence.
Farkhet was among six people whose arrest was ordered last week by the Spanish investigating judge Juan del Olmo.
The warrant describes him as the “leader and co-ordinator” of the suspects. It said he had been an active campaigner for jihad since as early as mid-2003.
Another man on the warrant list, Abdennabi Kounjaa, a Moroccan, was identified as being among the dead.
A third body, that of Asri Rifaat Anouar, did not appear on the list. Police were trying to establish whether another body was that of a wanted man, Jamal Ahmidan, a 34-year-old Moroccan known as “The Chinaman”.
Yesterday afternoon, police searching for explosives were examining a car parked near the building where the five suspects blew themselves up. The vehicle belonged to one of the dead bombers, an interior ministry official said.
Mr Acebes would not say how the suspects were tracked down, but El Pais newspaper said police traced them through a mobile phone call from the apartment.
Officers will now concentrate on examining any links the bombers had with other terrorist groups, Mr Acebes said.
Spain remains on a state of alert since the Madrid bombings, with the army, police and national railway company Renfe operating a permanent surveillance system.