The UK ambassador in Sofia, Jonathan Allen, is to meet Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin to discuss Bulgaria’s position on the involvement of Hezbollah in the July 2012 terrorist attack on Israeli tourists at Bourgas Airport, local media said.
This follows Vigenin having been quoted on June 5 2013 as saying that Bulgaria only had an “indication” that the Lebanese-based organisation was involved in the terrorist attack, in which five Israelis, a Bulgarian and the carrier of the bomb died – a statement that immediately was interpreted as a backdown by Bulgaria on its February 5 statement linking Hezbollah to the terrorist attack.
International media widely reported Vigenin’s interview with public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio, which came as high-level discussions were taking place within the European Union on whether to declare Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organisation, with the UK in the lead in pushing for such a declaration.
Vigenin was quoted as saying that it was important that the EU decision should not be based only on the bombing at Bourgas Airport “because I think the evidence we have is not explicit”.
“There is an indication that it is possible (that Hezbollah was responsible for the terrorist attack) but we cannot take decisions with important consequences for the EU based on indirect data,” said Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister, who came into office along with the new of the country’s new Bulgarian Socialist Party government on May 29.
Vigenin said that if there was “enough serious proof from other cases” then Bulgaria would not waver from supporting such a decision.
However, on June 6, following widespread reaction to the reported statements by Vigenin, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the matter had been discussed between him and John Rowan, the ambassador of Ireland – current holder of the rotating presidency of the EU – and that Vigenin had said that Bulgaria had not revised its position on the terrorist act at Bourgas Airport.
“Bulgaria is ready to join the consensus decision of the EU and it is our responsibility to present an even more solid foundation for it,” the statement quoted Vigenin as saying, adding that he had requested an acceleration of the process of gathering additional evidence from the foreign partners from whom assistance had been requested.
On June 8, local media quoted British ambassador Allen as saying that he had discussed the matter on the phone with Vigenin and it had been agreed that they would meet in the week starting June 10.
“I am aware that the investigation continues, but for us there is no doubt that it was Hezbollah that was behind the terrorist act, and behind that in Cyprus,” Allen said, the reference to Cyprus being to the conviction in court of a man who had sought to attack Israeli targets on the island around the same time as the Bourgas Airport terrorist attack.
Allen said that he understood from the telephone conversation that Bulgaria had not changed its position.
The background to Bulgaria’s February 5 declaration that it had evidence linking the Bourgas Airport terrorist attack to members of Hezbollah’s military wing followed months of Sofia declining to point a finger until it had sufficient proof.
Soon after the July 18 2012 terrorist attack, Israeli blamed Hezbollah and weeks later, media reports quoted unnamed senior officials in Washington as indicating that the US shared this view.
After the announcement was made in February, there was division in Bulgaria on partisan political lines.
At the time, Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev said that the decision to implicate Hezbollah was “poorly founded” and would endanger the national security of Bulgaria.
According to socialist leader Stanishev, it was “obvious that Bulgaria’s government has chosen a political approach and is only repeating the interpretation alleged by Israel on the very next day following the attack, when the investigation had not even started”.
Bulgaria’s then centre-right government, according to Stanishev, had “entered into an international political game in an irresponsible manner, without calculating the consequences”.
In reaction to the February statement by the Bulgarian government of the time, there were similar reactions from two other minority parties, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) and ultra-nationalists Ataka, which accused the government of rushing to judgment and, in the case of Ataka, also said that Bulgaria had bowed to pressure from Israel and the US – a charge vehemently rejected by the foreign minister of the time, Nikolai Mladenov, who said that there had been no such pressure.
Given that the BSP has formed the new government with the support of the MRF and the tacit support of Ataka, it is hardly surprising that Vigenin’s reported remarks on June 5 were seized on as evidence of a change of position.
In an interview with Bulgaria’s Standart, underlining that Sofia had not changed its position, Vigenin said: “Regarding the ongoing consultations whether the armed wing of Hezbollah should be put on the list of terrorist organisations, Bulgaria will share the stand reached by all EU members. So, I asked our foreign partners to speed up the process of evidence collection.
So, regardless of some speculations of the media, Bulgaria has not reconsidered its stand on Hezbollah.”
“My opinion is that Bulgaria should present the whole information it has to give the opportunity to our EU partners to make their judgments,” Vigenin was quoted as saying.
“But I would not like that the whole case be based only and solely on the bomb attack against Bourgas airport, there are other cases which lead to Hezbollah. If this is so, Bulgaria should support the joint position of the EU for blacklisting the military wing of Hezbollah in the list of terrorist organisations,” he said.
At the June 4 meeting to discuss the EU’s stance on Hezbollah, several EU countries reportedly raised questions over the evidence linking Hezbollah to the Bourgas Airport terrorist attack. According to several sources, at the meeting of the EU working group on terrorist designations (CP931) several EU governments also expressed concern that such a move would increase instability in the Middle East now that Lebanon is already suffering spillover from the civil war in Syria, the European Jewish Press reported. Among these countries are Finland, Sweden, Austria, Italy and Ireland.
A decision on putting an organisation on to the blacklist of the EU requires the consent of all member states, which currently add up to 27, and with the addition of Croatia on July 1, will become 28.
In Israel, the media reported that the country’s foreign ministry had pledged to continue its campaign to persuade the EU as a bloc to add Hezbollah to the list of terrorist organisations. The same reports quoted a spokesperson for the UK’s foreign office as saying, “we continue to believe our evidence is robust and strong”.
(Main photo, of Kristian Vigenin: Foreign Ministry)