MADRID -- At least three suspects in last month's deadly railway bombings blew themselves up yesterday as police prepared to storm their apartment. One special forces agent was killed in the explosion and 15 police officers were wounded.
The blast in Leganes, a southern suburb of the Spanish capital, blew out part of the exterior walls on the first and second floors of the brick apartment building.
Police had approached the building at around 7 p.m. to make arrests as part of an escalating manhunt for those responsible for the March 11 bombings that killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800.
The suspects spotted the police from a window and shot at them, chanting loudly in Arabic, the Interior Ministry said. No police officers were hurt by the gunfire.
Over the next two hours, police evacuated as many people as they could from the building and surrounding area and prepared for an assault on the apartment.
"The special police agents prepared to storm the building and when they started to execute the plan, the terrorists set off a powerful explosion, blowing themselves up," Interior Minister Angel Acebes said.
"There are three that could have blown themselves up, but the possibility of more is not ruled out," he said.
The news agency Europa Press said forensic specialists were searching the building's swimming pool for remains of a possible fourth suspect, but the report could not immediately be confirmed.
Police believe some of the suspects may have carried out the March 11 bombings, Acebes said.
After the blast, floodlights lit up the wreckage in the exposed rooms of the building. Pieces of concrete littered the floors and wires dangled from the ceilings.
Leganes, about 10 miles southwest of central Madrid, is home to 175,000 people.
The investigation into the March 11 attacks has focused on the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which has links to Al Qaeda.
The Moroccan organization is related to a group suspected in last year's Casablanca bombings, which killed 45 people, including 12 suicide bombers.
Judge Juan del Olmo, the investigating magistrate, has issued international arrest warrants for five Moroccans and a Tunisian, identified as Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, and described as the leader of the bombers.
Another 15 suspects are already in custody. Six have been charged with mass murder and nine with collaborating with or belonging to a terrorist group. Eleven of the 15 charged are Moroccan.
Earlier yesterday, Acebes said a bomb found under the tracks of a high-speed train line on Friday was made of the same brand of explosive, Goma 2 Eco, that was used in the Madrid train attacks.
However, he said it was still too early to name any suspects. Goma 2, often used for demolition and in mining, is relatively easy to get in Spain.
"It's the same type of explosive and it's the same brand," Acebes said of the 26-pound bomb. The bomb was planted about 40 miles south of Madrid, and its discovery stopped six bullet trains using the Madrid-Seville line.
Train service resumed yesterday, but soldiers, police, and Civil Guard officers could be seen patrolling the targeted rail lines. Today is the start of Holy Week, when many Spaniards take vacation or travel to their hometowns for the Easter holiday.
Because the bag containing the bomb was dry and the ground was wet, authorities believe it was placed at the scene Friday. A 450-foot-long cable was attached to the detonator. The rail line where the bomb was found mainly serves Spain's AVE bullet trains, which have a top speed of 190 miles per hour, although some slower trains also use it.
Another bomb was found half-buried beneath a French railroad track on March 24 about 100 miles southeast of Paris, triggering a massive inspection of France's rail network. Authorities have not said whether they suspect any connection between that incident and the bombs in Spain.