MADRID (Reuters) - Five small bombs exploded in northern Spain on Sunday, including four at popular seaside resorts in Cantabria which were claimed by the Basque separatist group ETA and sent thousands of people fleeing for cover.
One woman was hurt by a flying stone and another treated for shock after the resort blasts which hit at mid-day. They followed an early morning explosion outside a Barclays bank branch in a town near Bilbao.
The attacks marked the beginning of ETA’s traditional summer bombing campaign, which targets holiday resorts as part of the group’s four-decade struggle for an independent Basque state.
Many European schools have begun their summer holidays and the attacks are meant to hurt tourism, one of Spain’s biggest foreign income earners.
Spain’s Socialist government says ETA has been severely weakened by a string of arrests, but the guerrilla group has staged more than a dozen attacks and killed two people since the beginning of the year.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero broke off peace talks with ETA after the group killed two Ecuadorians in an attack on Madrid airport in December 2006, effectively ending a 10-month ceasefire.
The government condemned Sunday’s attacks and reaffirmed its fight against the armed group that has killed more than 800 people since 1968, usually with car bombs or shootings.
“The best way to get a long prison sentence in Spain at the moment is to join ETA,” said Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba.
The Basque government, seeking a referendum that could mark a step towards independence, also denounced the attacks and said the region would decide its future with votes, not bombs.
“They have spread terror and alarm among tens of thousands of people in these Cantabrian towns,” it said in a statement.
The first Cantabria bomb exploded at about 11:15 a.m. British time on a seafront promenade in Laredo, one of northern Spain’s most popular holiday destinations, damaging the walkway, breaking windows and sending a 25-metre plume of smoke into the air.
Holidaymakers had been cleared from the beach 45 minutes earlier and took cover in local cafes and bars which drew down shutters to protect against the blast, witnesses told radio.
“We received a call at around 10:30 a.m. from someone who said they represented ETA and told us ETA had planted four bombs,” said an emergency services official. “There were no injuries because the area had been cleared and cordoned off.”
A second bomb went off around 40 minutes later next to the lifeguard tower on the beach at Noja, west of Laredo, causing a loud blast but no damage, media said.
Poor weather meant there were few people on the Noja beach but a police call to evacuate the area sent tourists running, blocking the road out of town to the city of Bilbao, media said.
The third explosion was next to a Red Cross post in Laredo, close to where the first device went off, officials said.
A woman was slightly injured when she was hit by a rock sent flying by the fourth explosion on a golf course at Noja.
A pregnant woman was treated for shock, a government official said.
Early on Sunday, a small blast occurred outside a bank in Getxo north of Bilbao, damaging a cash dispenser and breaking windows.
ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or Basque Country and Freedom), usually gives a warning before attacking civilian targets. It does not warn of attacks on police, politicians or officials.
The group is listed as a terrorist organisation by Spain, the United States and the European Union.
Zapatero has ruled out further peace talks and says the guerrillas’ only option is a unilateral surrender.
Spain’s conservative Popular Party opposition questions Zapatero’s will to force ETA to lay down arms.
“We’ll always support the government in its fight against terrorism so long as its aim is — as I presume it is — to defeat the organization,” said Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy on Sunday.
The Cantabria blasts were the first attributed to ETA since May 14 when the separatists exploded a bomb without warning at the Civil Guard barracks in Legutiano, killing policeman Juan Manuel Pinuel-Villalon and injuring 4 others.
Later that month, police in southwest France arrested Francisco Javier Lopez Pena and three other ETA chiefs.
Additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Cristina Fuentes-Cantillana; Editing by Mary Gabriel