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Spain police thwart train bombing

From CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Police have foiled an attempt to bomb a Madrid-bound passenger train when it arrived in the Spanish capital. Officials blame the Basque separatist group ETA.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes told a nationally-televised news conference that police found a suitcase bomb on the train and deactivated the device several hours ahead of its intended explosion.

The discovery of the bomb occurred shortly after the arrests of two ETA suspects in northern Spain. One had placed the bomb, containing 20 kilos (44 pounds) of dynamite aboard the train; the other suspect was trying to place a similar suitcase bomb aboard the same train but was caught first, Acebes said.

Spain's state-run railway Renfe told CNN that the three-car train, with about 100 passengers aboard, originated in the Basque city of Irun, and left there at 8 a.m.

It was stopped at 11:30 a.m. local time at the northern provincial capital of Burgos, where the passengers were evacuated and police deactivated the suitcase bomb. Burgos is 237 km (146 miles) north of Madrid.

The bomb was timed to explode at 3:55 p.m. local Madrid time, about 45 minutes after the train's scheduled arrival at the Chamartin train station, one of the capital's two major train depots, Acebes said.

"The macabre plan of the terrorist organization was to cause an explosion at the Chamartin station, filled with passengers, on Christmas Eve," Acebes said. "There could have been tragic consequences."

The arrests Wednesday come just two weeks after police in France arrested, on December 9, the suspected top military commander of the Basque separatist group ETA and three of his collaborators.

Officials said these suspects had been the leaders of ETA's commando operational wing, that carries out attacks.

ETA is blamed for more than 800 killings in a 35-year fight for Basque independence and is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, of which Spain is a member.

An Interior Ministry spokesman told CNN the sequence of events Wedesday started with the arrest before 8 a.m. local time of ETA suspect Garikoitz Arruarte Santa Cruz, near the train station in San Sebastian, which was the train's first stop after its departure from nearby Irun.

Arruarte had a suitcase containing 28 kilos (61 pounds) of dynamite, a pistol, a wig, and a ticket for the San Sebastian train that would soon depart for Madrid. He had been acting suspiciously on the street and police were on alert due to possible ETA attacks, said the Interior Ministry spokesman, who asked not to be identified.

Arruarte was probably going to put his bomb on the train, to supplement the suitcase bomb that was found aboard and deactivated, the Interior Ministry spokesman said.

The next arrest occurred around 11:30 a.m. local time in the town of Hernani, near San Sebastian. Police detained Loran Lafourcade at his home, where police said he was hiding after earlier placing his suitcase, with 20 kilos (44 kilos) of dynamite aboard the Madrid-bound train.

About the same time of his arrest, police stopped the train in Burgos, which is about halfway between San Sebastian and Madrid.

Earlier reports that the two suspects had been driving a car with explosives were discounted.

Police have arrested well over 100 ETA suspects this year, mainly in Spain, but also in ETA's traditional rearguard of France, just across the border.

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