Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Balaclava-clad men seen near van in moments before Madrid blast: Witness

AFP , MADRID

A man presented by Spanish television as a witness who led police to a suspicious van after this week's deadly bombings said Friday 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 program 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 morning 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 Thursday the van had been reported stolen. The verses in Arabic were among those "usually used to teach the Koran," and that they "did not contain any threat," he said.

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.

A temporary morgue set up at Juan Carlos exhibition center in northern Madrid for the bodies of the bomb attacks was closed Friday night after a first batch of identifications, a justice ministry official said.

Of the 193 bodies taken to the morgue, 153 have been identified and returned to their families.

The 40 others were to be transferred to a morgue at Almudena cemetery in Madrid, justice secretary of state Rafael Catala said.

Remains that are still unidentified because they are lacking distinctive signs like fingerprints will undergo DNA tests. Authorities hope to be able to identify them within 36 hours.

Madrid's regional government meanwhile said that 289 of the 1,482 people wounded in the attacks were still hospitalized late Friday.

Eighteen of them were in critical condition, 175 were seriously hurt and 48 slightly injured.

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