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NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Spain is allowing the U.S. military to use its airspace and bases for the war against Iraq but is prohibiting any direct attacks from the country, Spanish officials said this week.

The government issued a glimpse of its support over the past several days, while trying to stamp out claims that American B-52s refueled over Spanish cities.

Spain’s Defense Minister Frederico Trillo refuted reports Monday that the bombers carried out aerial refueling operations over Bilbao, Pamplona and Barcelona on their way to missions in the Persian Gulf.

The defense minister told a congressional committee he authorized 27 B-52 overflights and 22 ground-attack aircraft between Jan. 1 and last Sunday because France prohibited such flights. He said he allowed the overflights under a bilateral defense accord that also allows the United States to use bases in Rota and Morón de la Frontera. About 3,000 U.S. forces are stationed at the bases in southern Spain.

The denial came after opposition party members in the three cities claimed taped conversation between Spanish air traffic controllers and U.S. pilots proved the refueling maneuvers happened. It was the latest salvo from party leaders against Prime Minister José Maria Aznar’s government, which has been relentlessly criticized for supporting President Bush on Iraq.

The newspaper El Pais reported in Monday’s editions that the U.S. B-52s took off from a base in Fairford, England, and refueled with the help of KC-135 tanker aircraft.

Spanish warplanes carrying ordnance for target practice are supposed to avoid populated areas and carry out aerial refueling over specially designated spots far from such areas — and if possible at sea, El Pais said.

Trillo said the reports were “absolutely false.”

Bombers have crossed Spanish airspace, but at no time did the military planes fly over the cities or conduct aerial refueling over Spain, the defense minister said. He added that none of the bombers landed or took off from Naval Station Rota or Morón Air Base.

The mayor of Bilbao, Inaki Azkuna, said the alleged refueling operations brought the war needlessly close to civilians.

“I think it is barbarous to toy with human lives, not just in the theater of operations, but also along the flight path of the B-52s,” he said.

In addition to the overflights, Trillo said in recent local media reports the government has authorized other measures requested by the U.S. military. They include:

Construction of a 116-bed field hospital in Rota for emergency medical care. The U.S. Navy completed the hospital last month.

Permission to build a 500-bed hospital at the naval station to treat casualties from the war on terrorism or possibly the war against Iraq.

The use of Zaragoza, San Javier, Talavera and Albacete airfields for U.S. civilian planes.

The temporary addition of 40 American security personnel for harbor defense in Rota.

An increase of 10 U.S. tanker aircraft at Morón, bringing the maximum number to 25 planes.

Although Spain has ruled out taking a direct role in the war, the government also has sent 900 support troops to the Gulf and a hospital ship to support humanitarian missions. Aznar told Parliament before the first cruise missile hit Baghdad that Spain would not take part in missions of an “offensive nature.”

The prime minister has had to balance his support for Bush on Iraq while trying not to rile up strong anti-war sentiment at home. Some polls show that more than 80 percent of Spaniards are against the war.

Meanwhile, some opposition party members have labeled the military strike “illegal” and have criticized the government for allowing the U.S. military to use the Spanish bases.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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