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Conversation: Spanish Ambassador Javier Ruperez

March 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The day after the Madrid bombings, and to Spain’s Ambassador to the United States Javier Ruperez. Mr. Ambassador, welcome.


JIM LEHRER: First, sympathy to you, sir, and to your countrymen and women.

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: Many of saying here and elsewhere that the Madrid bombings are the equivalent for Spain of the 9/11 bombings for the United States. Should they be seen that way?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Yeah, in many ways, in many ways. The size of the bombing is the number of dead is the number of wounded never before we had experienced something similar. And it is a shock that we have been through is very much our own 9/11. And up to a point that we are going to certainly remember the date, at the same time to remember there is one before … one thing before and one after. That’s our own 9/11.

JIM LEHRER: And it will be March 11 that will always be in Spanish history the way 9/11, Sept. 11 is for the United States.

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Very much so, very much so.

JIM LEHRER: Your prime minister said today that ETA, the Basque separatist group, remains the lead suspect in terms of being behind the bombings. Is that the information you have as well?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: That’s the information we have, that’s correct. We have a number of indications, certainly a number of different investigations going on. And we don’t exclude any possibility there. But there are a number of very strong indications that ETA could be behind the whole thing. After all, to start with, they there were a number of attempts by the terrorists before this one to try the same thing. Hardly ten days before, two terrorists or two members of ETA were arrested not far from Madrid with a van carrying 500 kilos of explosives. This time they used just hundreds. Think of the disaster if it had been 500.

Last December on Christmas Eve, another couple terrorists were arrested in another station in Madrid trying to do exactly the same thing. So that’s a very long story of attempts by the terrorists where they unfortunately finally succeeded yesterday. We are investigating the types of explosives and the proceedings, and they are looking, the police are looking for witnesses. There are very strong indications that ETA was trying to do exactly what finally was done yesterday.

JIM LEHRER: But is this … does this not run counter to the pattern of ETA? Most of their attacks in the past have been rather modest compared to what happened in the Madrid train stations, right; one or two people at a time, police officials, and that sort of thing?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Well, certainly that would be the largest and the biggest and the worst of all the attacks by ETA. We have to remember that some years ago they used to kill ten or 30 people at the same time. They put bombs in supermarkets. They put bombs in train stations as well, not even ten years ago there was a very strong attack not far from where the attack took place yesterday. All these things that some people say about ETA, well, they usually won’t. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I mean there is no book by which they behave.

JIM LEHRER: I understand.

JAVIER RUPEREZ: They behave by going to their own needs and their own needs is to kill — it’s like saying well, this is the first time they have been killing civilians. That’s not true. They have been killing hundreds of civilians. Many times — myself, when I was a member of parliament in 1979, I was kidnapped by ETA.

JIM LEHRER: You were kidnapped? I didn’t know that.

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Yes. I was kidnapped by ETA, by the very same people — I don’t know if it was the very same persons but it was the same group that is killing people today. So all those rather heroic mythologies about ETA do not correspond to reality. They kill whenever they can kill. That’s the truth of the matter.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what would be their point? What is the message that they want to get over by killing these 200 people yesterday?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Well, they claim to have a Basque country independent. That’s what they were claiming. Before, when Franco was still alive, they claimed they wanted democracy. As a matter of fact, they have been killing far more people right now with democracy than they killed when Franco was there. But the aim, the proclaimed aim is always independence. But at the end of the day, if you look at what they do, they know very well that they cannot achieve anything by use of violence. But at the end of the day what they try to achieve is to disrupt the fabric of democracy, the fabric of the country; the fabric of coexistence among all the Spaniards because after all terrorists try to produce terror. The object of terror is to subvert the working of the system just to give them power. That’s the only thing they’re looking for, power, power for themselves.

JIM LEHRER: We sat here together just now and watched our news summary, those pictures of millions of Spaniards in mourning and in protests of what had happened and all of that. If they expect the people … this thing … if they wanted attention for their cause, they’re getting it but on a most negative way, are they not?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Yeah, yeah, this is not the first time since this happens. I remember some years ago when they killed in a very terrible and brutal way, the municipal council in the Basque country and we had exactly the same reactions. And again the Spanish people are getting out to the streets to save themselves. Whatever they do, no matter how many people they kill, we will continue to respect ourselves, our freedoms, our constitution, our liberties and our prosperity. That’s the message coming from the Spanish people.

JIM LEHRER: There also is the additional thing that possibly al-Qaida or some element of al-Qaida could be involved. What’s your analysis of that?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: My own conviction and the conviction of the government is that there is a very strong possibility that ETA is behind our thing. The possibility of al-Qaida being involved is not excluded. After all, the government wants to be extremely transparent. They found, hours after the bombing, they found in a city not far from Madrid, as a matter of fact there where they put the bombs, they found a van which was abandoned and within the van they’ve found some tapes with praise in Arabic. We’ve assigned to find the relationship between that van and the terrorists, so that possibility is not abandoned.

But as I told you before, the fact that they’ve tried, the Basque terrorists they’ve tried several times, that we’ve had information that they were trying to launch the previous and basically what they used to do and the facts — something to be remembered — the facts in 48 hours, on Sunday, the 14th of March, we are going have general elections. That’s something which has been very in the back of the minds of the terrorists. They try to influence the elections. They try through the bombings and through the killings. I don’t think that al-Qaida people would care about when or how the elections are going to be held. So those are indications, but again, we keep all the options open, all investigations open.

JIM LEHRER: President Bush came to your residence this afternoon and laid a wreath. What did he say to you, Mr. Ambassador?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Well, that was really very moving, very moving. And even he saw the guy. I don’t remember the president of the United States getting into the foreign embassy to present his condolences. I’m sure you’ve seen the powerful images. In private he told me that first of all he was convinced that at the end of the day the victory was going to be ours because what the terrorists need is steadfastness, is fortitude, is going to be resistant to the terrorists. The terrorists are not retreated through weak approaches.

He spoke to me very highly of his good friend, the prime minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, who is going to withdraw. He is going retire. He told me that he was extremely satisfied knowing that Jose Maria Aznar was the head of the government and that he would be able to navigate in this very difficult and troubled internal waters.

He told me that although his experience through 9/11 teaches him that you have to be extremely consistent, extremely determined and not to show any weaknesses to the terrorists because this is what they are looking for and what they are trying to produce. But beyond that, I was, myself and my wife were extremely moved because Mrs. Bush was there as well, the two of them were there.

JIM LEHRER: Both of them.

JAVIER RUPEREZ: And it showed very clearly in the best way they could the solidarity and the love for our people. That’s something I will never forget.

JIM LEHRER: Just quickly for the record, I did not know until just now that you had been kidnapped by ETA. How long were you held?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: For a month.

JIM LEHRER: A month. Where? I mean were you held at gunpoint with some other members of the …

JAVIER RUPEREZ: I was a member of parliament at the time. I was held at gunpoint. It was a rather difficult time for us because Franco had died in 1975. It was the beginning of democracy. We were in the middle of discussion of the Basque study of autonomy and a number of political groups, including the terrorists were trying to make their points and trying to force the government to accept a number of points. I was a hostage to that.

JIM LEHRER: How many of you were held?

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Just one. Just myself.

JIM LEHRER: Just you.

JAVIER RUPEREZ: At that time, just myself.

JIM LEHRER: So this is very personal to you as well as professional.

JAVIER RUPEREZ: It is political, but it’s personal, it’s professional, it is my life — my life for good or for bad.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, thank you, and again our sympathy.

JAVIER RUPEREZ: Thank you, thank you very much.