After Bus Bombing, Bulgaria’s Ties With Israel Are at RiskViews on BG | July 31, 2012, Tuesday // 09:38| views
The explosion at Burgas airport in Bulgaria was the deadliest attack on Israelis abroad since 2004. File photo
by Nicholas Kulish
Contirbutor Boryana Dzambazova
Nearly two weeks after the bombing of a busload of Israeli tourists, Bulgarian investigators said they had yet to identify the bomber, and did not publicly indicate who they believed was behind the attack. But if the trail remains murky, the impact of the disaster on this small Balkan nation is clear: It has jeopardized its strong ties with both Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East.
Bulgarian officials have been notably reluctant to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in publicly pinning blame for the attack, which killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver, on Hezbollah and Iran, a view privately shared by American officials. Instead, the government has tried to contain details about the investigation, hoping to avoid mistakes in a situation with global political and security implications, as evidence grows of a shadow war between Israel on one side and Iran and Hezbollah on the other.
"For small Bulgaria to come out and openly name Hezbollah in such a way is as good as entering a minefield," said Vladimir Shopov, a political scientist at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia. "There would have to be absolute certainty almost. You'd have to be really, really confident that your convincing evidence could stand up before all the other members of the E.U."
A member of the Bulgarian security establishment, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, said that there was a "clear direction that points to Hezbollah" in the pattern and evidence of the attack, but that it would probably be some time before any official determination was made.
Unlike the United States and Israel, which officially list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the European Union thus far has refused to blacklist the organization, which is a political party as well as a militant group and since last year has been part of the Lebanese government. The stakes are unusually high for a country with a population just over seven million, smaller than New York City, whose political class is normally occupied by what Mr. Shopov called "blissful parochialism."
Bulgaria is perched precariously between Serbia, crisis-afflicted Greece and a rising regional power in Turkey, its next-door neighbor to the southeast. A member of NATO as well as the European Union, it has been working, with the help of its Western partners, to overcome a legacy of corruption and organized crime.
The country has a sizable indigenous Muslim population, estimated at 10 percent, mostly ethnic Turks but also Slavic Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East. "Bulgaria has a Muslim minority. We have many Arabs who came to the country and we don't want them to feel stigmatized in any way or form because of this act," Nickolay Mladenov, Bulgaria's foreign minister, said in an interview.
"This is a quiet country," Mr. Mladenov added, "and we would like to keep it quiet."
The country's commitments and international presence have changed in recent years, reflecting its new partnerships. Bulgaria had soldiers stationed in Iraq and still has about 600 troops among the NATO force in Afghanistan. Mr. Mladenov has tried to engage Bulgaria in the Arab Spring; in May, members of the Syrian opposition met in Bulgaria.
In a flurry of activity after the bombing, Bulgarian officials quickly released video of the bomber waiting outside the arrivals gate of the airport. But that has been replaced by stillness, as investigators wait for the bomber's DNA and fingerprints to be run through international databases. Mr. Mladenov dismissed criticism of the slow pace of the investigation. "Let's give the people working on this enough space to do their work," he said.
The country's prime minister, Boyko Borissov, said last week that the attack was the work of an "exceptionally experienced" group of conspirators. Many of the statements made by officials here seem aimed at deflecting criticism at home over the investigation.
"The more time passes the slimmer the chances are that they will be able to identify the attacker," said Mihail Mikov, a member of Parliament for the opposition Socialist Party. "If they don't find out who the bomber was within 10 or 15 days, I don't believe this will happen," Mr. Mikov said.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Bulgaria's interior minister, said in an interview that investigators were further along than they could publicly discuss without jeopardizing new leads. "It's very important when you talk to the public that you say something where you have evidence and proof, and not just go and give opinions," he said.
Mr. Tsvetanov said that the bomber had been in Bulgaria for 20 days before the attack, and that that investigators had learned where the fake Michigan driver's license belonging to the suicide bomber had been made. ("Outside the region," he said.) "We also have suggestions about the groups who might have organized such a terrorist act but they can't be mentioned publicly until the investigation is over," Mr. Tsvetanov said.
When the bombing took place, top Bulgarian officials were at a news conference in response to a European Commission report that said its progress in combating organized crime and corruption was "not yet sustainable and irreversible." The special prosecutor and special court likely to handle the terrorism case began operations only on Jan. 1 of this year.
"From my perspective, no one was really seeing terrorism as particularly a field which was going to be active," said Katia Hristova-Valtcheva, head of the cabinet at the Ministry of Justice.
The former head of the National Intelligence Service, Lt. Gen. Kircho Kirov, said he was not surprised by the attack. "In the last five or six years, we have had very concrete information that organizations like Hezbollah and structures connected to Al Qaeda as well as some individuals were ready to prepare attacks," General Kirov said.
In January, before he left the service, there was "very concrete information about attacks against Israeli tourists," General Kirov said. "We organized measures to prevent them." The winter tourist season passed without incident. The summer season did not.
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