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special report from spain

by ysabel de la rosa

BILBAO, Spain (Oct. 14) -- The Basque policeman killed in the terrorist attempt to plant grenades at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao on Oct. 13 was José María Aguirre, who spotted the authors of the atentado and helped thwart the attack. During the ensuing shoot-out, a bullet lodged in Aguirre's left lung.

The national TV news showed the 35-year-old Aguirre, lying in front of the museum, his face ashen and still. A fellow officer gripped Aguirre's right hand as he knelt by him on the pavement. Another officer worked quickly to open Aguirre's bright orange jacket and facilitate medical rescue efforts. At 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 14, Aguirre died of multiple hemorrhages. He is survived by a wife and nine-year-old daughter. The three Basque terrorists were captured and their headquarters was discovered within hours.

The first visitors to the new Guggenheim Bilbao were not royalty, art critics, artists or patrons. The first visitors were mourners, hundreds of them, gathered outside in the cold dark night, honoring the man who died with a profound silence.

The museum is now under heavier surveillance than ever. The plans for King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía to inaugurate the museum on Oct. 18 remain unchanged.

Bilbao, the Basque capital, has made a concerted effort to shake its image as a city beset by terrorism. The Guggenheim is the most spectacular recent testament to Bilbao's increasing prosperity and cultural growth. Its opening has been the focus of intense media attention inside and outside Spain. The fact that ETA now is focusing its attacks on Basque citizens in Basque territory is a dramatic and paradoxical, and has cost the 20-year-old terrorist group all but its most hard-core supporters. Aiming their most recent attack at an apolitical art institution adds another surprise number to the violent repertoire of the group that claims to fight for Basque "freedom."

Footnote: The headquarters of the three terrorists is just outside of Guernica, the village made famous in Picasso's painting. The dispute over whether Guernica should be moved from Madrid to Bilbao, if only temporarily, was given another nudge on Oct. 12 when José Antonio Ardanza, president of País Vasco (the Autonomous Basque Region of Spain), appeared in a television interview inside Bilbao's recently completed Guggenheim Museum. He ended the interview affirming the community's desire to have Picasso's Guernica hang in the Guggenheim. He insisted that the work's deteriorating canvas should not prevent moving it from Madrid's Reina Sofía museum to Bilbao. "Technology can solve this problem," he insisted, making it possible to bring the painting to the Basque people whose civil-war experience it commemorates. "This is where Guernica belongs," he said.

YSABEL DE LA ROSA is a writer and artist living in Madrid.