Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov has publicly criticised the United States embassy in Sofia for posting an alert on Facebook about a “possible threat” against a bus route in the capital which the Bulgarian security and intelligence services say was a false alarm.
The US embassy notice caused widespread media coverage and social media reactions, just as some Sofians- jittery after the March 22 terrorist attacks in Brussels – were spooked by rumours of a security problem at Sofia Airport. The rumours weighed down the website of the airport, which on the morning of March 24, issued an official denial, saying that all that had happened was one airline having a technical problem with aeronautical navigation.
In a Facebook post, the US embassy had said that it had information about “a possible threat against an unspecified bus line or bus lines in the vicinity of Hotel Pliska (Boulevard “Tsarigradsko shose” 87), in the eastern Sofia neighborhood of Istok. US citizens are advised to avoid the area and to find alternate means of transportation”.
After extensive coverage of the notice, there was a flurry of denials, with the government saying that the head of the State Agency for National Security, Dimitar Georgiev, had told Prime Minister Boiko Borissov that information about a planned attack in the Iztok area was untrue.
The allegation, first made to emergency number 112, had been investigated by the agency and by the Interior Ministry.
“The check established that this was a matter of a volatile romantic affairs between a Bulgarian and a foreign citizen,” the Bulgarian government said.
In the course of the investigation, Bulgarian authorities had exchanged information with international partners, the statement said.
Borissov said, “there is no real danger to the residents and guests of Sofia. I am familiar in detail with the investigation by the Bulgarian authorities. The report is low risk, but in the situation we are in, we have to check every allegation about a threat”.
He went to describe as “absolutely unacceptable and improper” the way in which US diplomats had put into the public domain information obtained from their Bulgarian colleagues.
Borissov said that he wanted to assure Bulgarian citizens that the state checked every report that could represent a threat to citizens and nothing would be hidden from the public if there was the slightest threat to people’s health and lives.
Soon after Borissov’s statement, the embassy posted on Facebook that “the March 23 security message that the US embassy distributed to US citizens concerning threats in Sofia is no longer in effect”.
“The Embassy appreciates the proactive measures taken by the Government of Bulgaria in response to threat concerns, and the Embassy continues to work closely with the Government of Bulgaria on counter-terrorism issues. Recent events in Europe underscore the need for all of us to exercise caution and be vigilant. We continue to encourage U.S. citizens to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages and make it easier to locate you in an emergency,” the embassy’s Facebook post said.
In the course of the morning, speculation online mounted – ahead of the statements by the Bulgarian government and the second Facebook post by the US embassy – when it emerged that police had detained 12 foreign citizens who had been travelling by van along Tsarigradsko Chaussee boulevard. The former Pliska Hotel building, now used by a bank, is close to the boulevard.
According to a report by public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television, the 12 identified themselves as from Afghanistan. The van was halted after police pursued it after the driver initially ignored a police order to stop.
The foreigners were taken to a police station for identity checks and investigations were continuing, the report said.
Soon after, the Interior Ministry issued a statement about the overall situation in the country, saying that after the tragic events in Brussels, the ministry had received a number of reports from concerned citizens.
“Each of these is subjected to scrutiny. So far no specific threats have been identified. We urge citizens to be calm,” the Interior Ministry said.
In recent days, Interior Minister Roumyana Buchvarova and Interior Ministry chief secretary Georgi Kostov have said repeatedly that there is no sign of a direct security threat to Bulgaria.