Basque car bomb injures politician's bodyguard

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BILBAO, Spain, Oct 9 (Reuters) A car bomb exploded in the northern city of Bilbao in Spain's Basque Country today, badly burning a man who worked as a bodyguard for a local politician, police and government officials said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the regional government blamed Basque rebels ETA.

The attack came just days after a judge arrested most of the top leaders of radical party Batasuna, which is banned for links to ETA, and which branded the detentions ''a declaration of war''.

The bomb in Bilbao's La Pena neighbourhood had been planted in the car of a man working as a bodyguard for a politician from Spain's governing Socialist Party and exploded as he started it at about 1135 GMT, police and government officials said.

Mobile phone video footage shot by a witness just after the bombing showed the Renault car blazing with flames which had also engulfed another vehicle parked next to it.

''It doesn't seem his injuries are very serious, at least not bad enough to put his life in danger,'' said Basque Country regional government spokeswoman Miren Azkarate.

''He would have burns on his scalp, on his hands and some superficial wounds on his back,'' she told reporters.

Basque separatism is looming as one of the major issues in next March's Spanish general elections.

BODYGUARD TARGETTED ETA has killed more than 800 people in four decades of armed struggle for independence of the Basque Country. It has staged several attempted attacks since calling off a cease fire in June but has not claimed any lives since it killed two people with a car bomb at Madrid airport in December.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero broke off attempted peace talks with ETA after the airport bombing.

The conservative opposition, which is narrowly behind in opinion polls, accuses the government of being soft on Basque separatists.

Socialist politician Jose Carlos Domingo told Spanish radio that his bodyguard, identified by local media as Gabriel Gines, seemed to have been the target of the attack.

''My family and I are really shaken up by this,'' said Domingo, whose use of a bodyguard is normal for Basque politicians who often face ETA threats.

While the Basque Country's unique language and culture were suppressed for decades during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the region now enjoys substantial autonomy and its traditions are officially encouraged.

But the regional government, run by moderate Basque nationalists who condemn ETA violence, has thrown down a challenge to Madrid by promising a referendum which could eventually lead to talks about independence.

Zapatero has rejected the plan, which he says would be illegal.

Shortly before Tuesday's bombing, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said security had been boosted in the capital Madrid ahead of a national holiday on Friday, which includes a parade attended by Zapatero and King Juan Carlos.

REUTERS PDT BST2136

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