Basque car bomb wounds politician's bodyguard

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BILBAO, Spain, Oct 10 (Reuters) A car bomb exploded in the northern city of Bilbao in Spain's Basque Country, burning the bodyguard of a Socialist councillor, police and government officials said.

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

The attack took place a few days after a judge arrested most of the top leaders of the radical party Batasuna, banned because of links to ETA. The group described the detentions as ''a declaration of war''.

The bomb in Bilbao's La Pena neighbourhood had been planted underneath the car of a man working as a bodyguard for a councillor from Spain's governing Socialist Party and exploded as he started it at about 0515 hrs IST, officials said.

Investigators believed the bomb may have contained ammonia, although it was too early to rule out other theories, Spain's Security Secretary Antonio Camacho said yesterday.

Mobile phone video footage shot by a witness just after the blast showed the Renault car in flames. The blaze also engulfed another vehicle parked next to it.

It was not known whether the bodyguard or the councillor for whom he worked was the target of the attack, Camacho said.

The 37-year-old bodyguard was taken to the Hospital de Cruces in Bilbao for treatment. The hospital said he suffered burns on 4 percent of his body.

BODYGUARD TARGETED Basque separatism is looming as a major issue in the general election in March next year.

ETA has killed more than 800 people in four decades of armed struggle for the independence of the Basque country. It has carried out several attempted attacks since calling off a ceasefire in June but no one has died since two people were killed by a car bomb at Madrid airport in December.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero abandoned an attempt at peace talks with ETA after the airport bombing. The conservative opposition, narrowly behind in opinion polls, accuses the government of being soft on the separatists.

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

''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.

The regional government, run by moderate Basque nationalists who condemn ETA violence, has issued 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.

Reuters TB VP0444

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