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Aznar defiant as Spain dead return

Coffins of slain Spanish agents arrive at military airbase near Madrid.
Coffins of slain Spanish agents arrive at military airbase near Madrid.

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Jose Maria Aznar

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain's prime minister vowed his country would remain in Iraq as the bodies of seven Spanish intelligence agents killed in an ambush near Baghdad arrived home.

A transport plane carrying the coffins landed at Torrejon military airbase near the capital Madrid Sunday night. An air force honor guard received the caskets, draped in Spain's yellow and red flag, as they were carried off the plane.

A priest held a brief religious service, sprinkling the coffins with holy water as a cold rain fell. Families of the seven men huddled on the tarmac under umbrellas.

Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo had accompanied the bodies to Madrid. An eighth agent who was slightly hurt in Saturday's attack also returned on the plane. The agents were assigned to Spain's National Intelligence Center.

Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and the government's joint deputy prime ministers, Rodrigo Rato and Javier Arenas, also attended the airbase ceremony.

Absent was Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who earlier Sunday spoke to the nation in a televised address and said Spain would continue to support the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq despite the attack.

"Our presence in Iraq makes sense," Aznar said. "Our freedom is threatened by the terrorists, who act wherever they can.

"We are where we have to be and won't abandon (the effort). We will carry out our mission."

Aznar cut short a weekend away from Madrid to rush back to the capital following the attack.

Wearing a black suit and black tie, he told Spaniards that withdrawal from Iraq would be the "worst alternative" and called on them to stand united to get through the shock of the agents' deaths.

He said Italians, Britons, Americans, Poles, Iraqi civilians and international diplomats have suffered losses in Iraq as well.

Aznar read the names of the seven Spanish agents and said they were all career military personnel.

"No one knew the risks better than them, but in spite of that, they wanted to fight terrorism" in Iraq, he said.

The slain agents were identified as Alberto Martinez Gonzalez, Jose Merino Olivera, Jose Carlos Rodriguez Perez, Jose Lucas Egea, Alfonso Vega Calvo, Luis Ignacio Zanon Tarazona and Carlos Baro Ollero.

The agent who survived the attack was identified as Jose Manuel Sanchez Riera.

Aznar said of the agents:
Aznar said of the agents: "No one knew the risks better than them."

Aznar said a day of national mourning would be declared to coincide with the funerals, which have yet to be scheduled.

The remains of the agents were to undergo autopsies at a military hospital in southern Madrid later Sunday.

In a nationally televised address Saturday night, Defense Minister Trillo said the attack was an "assassination." (Full story)

The attack came amid a series of weekend strikes on troops, diplomats, agents and civilians from countries participating in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. (Full story)

Aznar's conservative government has been a staunch supporter of the Bush administration over the war in Iraq. Since August, Spain has had about 1,300 combat-ready troops stationed in the Polish-controlled sector of Iraq between Baghdad and Basra.

But opinion polls show that the vast majority of Spaniards oppose the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

On Sunday, an editorial in El Pais, Spain's largest-circulation newspaper, said: "Spain is paying a high price" for its support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and that Spain never should have become involved.

Spain's newspapers carried photos of the aftermath of the attack.
Spain's newspapers carried photos of the aftermath of the attack.

However, an editorial in the leading conservative daily, ABC, called the attack on the intelligence agents "terrorism in its pure form" and said the attackers were "organized terrorists opposed to a transition from a dictatorship to freedom" in Iraq. ABC said Spain must stand with its allies "to wipe out international terrorism."

The front pages of the major newspapers had photographs of young Iraqi men or boys standing over some of the bodies of the slain intelligence agents by the roadside.

CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman contributed to this report

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