On Tuesday, 5 February, Bulgarian interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov directly accused Hizballah of carrying out the bus bombing in the Black Sea resort of Burgas on 18 July of last year, killing five and injuring another thirty-two Israeli tourists. Although speculations have circulated among local and international media since the attack, it took six months for the Bulgarian secret services to officially declare that the military wing of Hizballah was responsible for the explosion.
Two key phrases should be noted in Tsvetanov’s speech: “There is data showing the financing and connection between Hizballah and the two suspects,” and, “What can be established as a well-grounded assumption is that the two persons whose real identity has been determined belonged to the military wing of Hizballah.” While the statement made by the interior minister sounds quite convincing given the use of expressions like ”data showing” and “well-grounded assumption”, the Bulgarian government didn’t refer to any explicit arguments whatsoever in order to substantiate its assumptions. Nor were any explicit names of perpetrators given during the session of Bulgaria’s National Security Council.
Not surprisingly, then, the otherwise scattered opposition in the EU country unanimously condemned and rejected the report made by the ruling party (GERB), describing it as “lacking any concrete evidence” and “absolutely unjustified.” “The link to Hezbollah has been dictated by external pressure,” said Sergei Stanishev, leader of the Socialist Party, which is the main opposition block in the Bulgarian parliament. The former foreign minister and currently an EU deputy Ivaylo Kalfin warned that “as of today, the threat for the Bulgarian citizens from terrorist attacks is much higher.” The other parties expressed similar concerns across the political spectrum in parliament.
Indeed, the statement not only lacks clear evidence, but also raises some confusion. According to the conclusions of the Bulgarian investigation, three people were involved in the explosion, two of whom had an Australian and Canadian passports. “Both lived in Lebanon between 2006 and 2010 and were part of Hizballah’s military wing,” said Tsvetanov. He didn’t make it clear, however, whether the actual bomber belonged to Hizballah or not. The only comment given in this regard was that the DNA profile of Jacques Philippe Martin (the name on the fake driver’s licence of the suicide attacker) matched that of Ralph William Rico, who was till now considered to be the bomber’s accomplice. Thus, even the identity of the bomber remains unclear. As there was no media present at the Bulgarian government’s announcement, the statement could not be clarified.
Implications of the Statement
Certainly, the alarming report comes as a move to polish the image of a poor country like Bulgaria on an international level: it opens the way for the European Union to include Hizballah on its list of terrorist organiztions – something the United States and Israel have been insisting on for quite some time. Nevertheless, while the attack was perpetrated on European soil, there is no clear indication that the rest of the EU member states will support the Bulgarian position. Yet, consultations need to be held between representatives of the all twenty-seven members before including Hizballah in its black list, which would automatically render illegal any financial transfer from the EU to Hizballah as a group or to individual members.
The reaction of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, was noticeably reserved given the lack of substantial evidence in the Bulgarian report. A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief highlighted "the need for a reflection over the outcome of the investigation," adding that EU member states “would discuss an appropriate response based on all elements identified by the investigators."
Interestingly, instead of publishing the official Bulgarian statement, the English version of Hizballah’s website cited the statement of the Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Stanishev saying, “The Bulgarian government’s implication of Hizballah in the Burgas bus bombing is poorly founded and imperils the national security,” thereby rejecting the allegations. Shortly after the report was released, concerned about the possible consequences, Bulgarian interior minister hastened to draw a dividing line between the military branch of Hizballah and its political arm. In like manner, the foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov convened a meeting with Arab ambassadors in Sofia to reassure them that Bulgarian policy towards the Arab world has not changed.
Indeed, given the complex dynamics of Middle East politics and Hizballah’s key role as a political actor in Lebanon and, now, Syria, Bulgaria should be wary when making untimely statements of that kind, even if it is keen to improve its stature in Washington. Nevertheless, there is no certainty the EU will brand Hizballah as a terrorist organization unless it receives compelling evidence – not a mere statement issued out of Sofia – that the group is linked to the bus blast.
Bulgaria – A Smokescreen for US-Israel?
The statement released by the Bulgarian government has sparked a great deal of speculation. It marks the end of a hectic three-months in which Tsvetanov, the Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Mladenov spent a considerable amount of time shuttling between the US and Israel. The high-level visits included meetings with the US President Barack Obama, his chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This all makes it easy to speculate that the US and Israel have been heavily involved in the investigation and invested in any possible outcome that sought to hasten blame on Hizballah.
The US Congress adopted a declaration in December urging the EU to denounce Hizballah as a terrorist organization and asking Obama to provide all necessary support to Bulgaria to conduct its investigation. As the Bulgarian opposition suspected, it is highly possible that government officials were under considerable pressure from the US and Israel, which are trying to use the bombing as a smokescreen to further complicate the intricacies in the Middle East in view of the current situation in Syria and Lebanon.