Madrid – As the militant Basque separatist group ETA prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of its foundation on Friday, the Spanish government knew it might stage attacks around that date.
But despite police being on alert for that possibility, few had expected that suspected ETA members would target Majorca, an idyllic island where the group had not disturbed the peace of tourists since 1991.
The island was a risky target as the bombers who killed two police officers in the western tourist resort of Palmanova were likely to find it more difficult to escape than on the Spanish mainland.
But by striking on Majorca, ETA also knew it was hitting Spain where it really hurt – at the heart of its vitally important tourism industry.
The bomb went off in a neighbourhood filled with hotels and cafeterias, just a few hundred metres from where tourists were sunbathing on a beach.
An estimated 30,000 tourists were in the area at the time.
The explosives had been attached to a police car, which blew up. Its two occupants died instantly.
‘I heard a loud blast and suddenly saw a lot of police,’ a shaken Italian tourist said.
Tourists who had come to enjoy the sun and sea were suddenly hearing media reports on bloody limbs hanging on a tree.
‘It had seemed that being an island protected us, but ETA’s barbarity has crossed the Mediterranean to where they knew the attack would get a lot of publicity,’ said Carlos Delgado, mayor of the municipality of Calvia, where Palmanova is located.
Alarmed relatives of German and British holidaymakers were calling their respective embassies amid reassurances from Spanish tourism professionals that the country was safe.
ETA has staged dozens of attacks in tourist resorts over the decades, but they have usually been minor. Tourists have sometimes been wounded, but never killed.
The Majorca attack, however, could deal at least a temporary blow to Spain’s tourism industry at a time when arrivals had already been expected to go down by about 10 per cent because of this year’s economic downturn in Europe, analysts said.
Spain is still the world’s third largest tourism destination after France and the United States, receiving some 60 million visitors in 2008.
Tourism contributes nearly 11 per cent of Spain’s gross domestic product (GDP) and gives employment to almost 2 million people.
About 4 million Germans and more than 3 million Britons spent their holidays on the Balearic Islands in 2008.
By hitting the tourism industry, ETA wanted to make clear that it can still do a lot of harm, despite its progressive military weakening and social isolation, analysts said.
The overwhelming majority of the Basques reject the violent tactics of the group that seeks a Basque homeland of more than 2 million citizens created out of northern Spain and southern France.
Fifty years after ETA was created to defend Basque rights against the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the group is perhaps weaker than ever before, with constant police crackdowns having left about 700 of its members in prison.
But even a few gunmen or bombers can kill, as the Spanish government well knows.
Thirty-six hours before the attack on Majorca, a car bombing in the northern city of Burgos failed to cause the massacre that ETA had apparently intended, only causing slight injuries to some 60 people. The group was more successful on Majorca.
The overall death toll now stands at about 850 since ETA’s separatist campaign took a violent turn in 1968.