Spain's prime minister claimed yesterday that his predecessor's government erased computer records on the aftermath of the March 11 Madrid train bombings. Prime Minister José José...

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MADRID, Spain — Spain’s prime minister claimed yesterday that his predecessor’s government erased computer records on the aftermath of the March 11 Madrid train bombings.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero — appearing before a parliamentary commission investigating the bombings that killed 191 people — also denied his Socialist Party had instigated anti-government rallies on the eve of elections to reap political benefit from the attacks.

The Socialist Party won general elections three days after the bombings, with many Spaniards blaming U.S.-allied Prime Minister José María Aznar for provoking the attacks by supporting the war in Iraq. The government had blamed Basque separatists for the attack.

Opponents say Aznar’s government tried to obscure links to Islamic terrorism to prevent voters from perceiving the attack as retribution for the government’s position and its deployment of troops to Iraq.

Spain withdrew its 1,300 peacekeeping troops from Iraq in April.

Zapatero confirmed a report in the newspaper El Pais that when he took power in April, his aides found that all records of crisis meetings and government communications in the days after the attacks had been erased from computers at Aznar’s office complex.

Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
“There was not a single piece of paper. Absolutely nothing,” Zapatero said. “They left us the bill.” El Pais said a computer company charged $15,000 to wipe out the records.

Eduardo Zaplana, spokesman for the Popular Party, which was ruling at the time of the attack, did not answer Zapatero’s accusations directly.

He said Spain’s intelligence agency retained records on the bombing aftermath and the prime minister had full access to them.

Zapatero, the first Spanish prime minister to testify before a parliamentary commission of inquiry, also found himself on the defensive.

Thousands of demonstrators — spreading the word by cellphone text message — held protests outside Popular Party offices in Madrid and other cities March 13. They accused Aznar’s government of making Spain a target for al-Qaida by endorsing the Iraq invasion.

Under Spanish law, political rallies are banned the day before an election.

“We did not know about, plan, participate in, instigate or support the demonstrations on March 13,” Zapatero said, drawing laughter from Popular Party members.

Zaplana, who grilled Zapatero for more than four hours, refused to accept the prime minister’s explanation.

“I am sorry to say it this way, but your party behaved in an anti-democratic fashion. You should have at least criticized the rallies and called for them to stop,” he said.

Popular Party lawmakers also laughed when Zapatero misspoke, referring to the bombings not as a terrorist attack but an “electoral attack,” essentially the phrasing Aznar used two weeks ago when he testified that the underlying goal of the bombings was to bring down his government.

Zapatero dismissed criticism from the United States that Spain had acted with cowardice by withdrawing its troops from Iraq. Militants who claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of al-Qaida said they had acted because of Spain’s troop presence there and in Afghanistan.

“It is brutal and unacceptable,” Zapatero said of the criticism. “No Spanish government has kneeled to terrorism and none will.”

Zapatero said Aznar’s government never had evidence to back its claims that the prime suspects were not Muslim militants but members of the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

Backbench Popular Party lawmakers could be heard saying: “That is a lie,” and “This is a disgrace.”

The 16-member panel investigating the bombings began work in July and has heard from more than 50 former police and government officials on how the government handled the attacks and what warnings it had that Spain might be a target for Muslim militants.

The commission is to conclude with testimony later this week, then write a final report.