Spain relived the bloody March 11 Madrid train bombings as the first public hearings began on Tuesday with the focus on who police at first thought was to blame, an issue that helped topple the previous government.

In the televised parliamentary hearings, the star witness, a doorman who saw the masked bombers on the morning of the attacks, undermined the government's claim that the early investigation pointed to Basque separatists.

"Police told me they didn't think it was ETA. . . . I had the impression they were foreigners, although I can't tell you why," doorman Luis Garrudo told the special committee holding the hearings.

The Popular Party government in office at the time, citing what it said was police guidance, initially blamed the group Basque Homeland and Liberty, or ETA, for the massacre rather than the Islamic militants who investigators now agree were responsible.

A backlash against the hasty claim sparked nationwide protests against the government. Three days after the bombs killed close to 200 people, the Popular Party was defeated by the opposition Socialists in previously scheduled general elections.

[The Associated Press reported that Garrudo described seeing three young men wearing handkerchiefs over their faces and wool caps despite the warm weather at the station where the attacks originated.

[One of the men walked quickly toward the train carrying a bag while the two others stayed behind at a parked van. "My blood ran cold. I thought it was a robbery," he said.

[Garrudo testified that he directed police to the van, which was found to contain a cassette tape with verses from the Koran, detonators and traces of explosives of the kind used in the attack.]

When police showed him pictures of possible suspects to identify, most of them were of Arabs, Garrudo said.

A later witness, the chief of Spain's forensics institute, recounted how a convention center was converted into a mass morgue for relatives to identify the dead.

Both witnesses chose to have their televised images distorted to protect them against possible reprisals.

Political analysts say that ETA involvement would have justified the years-old crackdown by the former government of prime minister Jose Maria Aznar against a group that the United States and European Union label as terrorists. But the role of Arab extremists reminded voters of Aznar's hugely unpopular decision to back the Iraq war and send 1,300 peacekeeping troops there.