Agence France Presse

Madrid, March 13:

A man presented by Spanish television as a witness who led police to a suspicious van after this week’s deadly bombings said yesterday he had seen three men wearing balaclavas near the vehicle shortly before powerful blasts ripped through suburban trains killing 199 people.

The man, whose identity was not given, told TVE’s Informe semanal programme he had been surprised to see the trio wearing the winter gear in Alcala de Henares, east of the capital, even though temperatures were rather mild on Thursday when the attacks were carried out. Two of the young men remained near the vehicle while the third, carrying a backpack and another bag and described as rather tall, headed to the Alcala train station from where the doomed trains departed for Madrid, he said.

After Thursday’s attacks the man had told police about the suspicious van in which investigators later found seven detonators and an audio tape with Koranic verses.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes said on Thursday the van had been reported stolen. The verses in Arabic were those “usually used to teach the Koran,” and that they “did not contain any threat”, he added.

The find added a new element to the investigation into the blasts, which went off in rush-hour morning trains, also wounding more than 1,400 people.

The Spanish government has blamed the armed Basque separatist group ETA for the carnage, but there have been growing fears the attacks could have been carried out by Al Qaeda in retaliation for Spain’s role in the US-led occupation of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Mariano Rajoy, leader of Spain’s ruling Popular Party, said today he was convinced Basque separatists were behind bomb attacks on four commuter trains in Madrid.