Europeans Await Report on Bus Blast in Bulgaria
The bus bombing at the Burgas airport on July 18, 2012 killed a total of seven, including 5 Israeli tourists, their Bulgarian bus driver, and the perpetrator of the attack. Photo by BGNES
The New York Times
By NICHOLAS KULISH and MATTHEW BRUNWASSER
SOFIA, Bulgaria — A meeting of top government officials and security personnel of this small Balkan country on Tuesday could have wide-reaching repercussions for Europe's uneasy détente with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Expectations are rising that Bulgarian officials will confirm a link between Hezbollah and the suicide bombing in July 2012 that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver and wounded dozens of others in Burgas on the Black Sea coast.
Experts say a determination that Hezbollah was involved would force the European Union to reconsider whether to designate the group a terrorist organization, as the United States and Israel have urged.
The European calculation all along has been that whatever its activities in the Middle East, Hezbollah does not pose a threat on the Continent. Thousands of Hezbollah members and supporters operate in Europe essentially unrestricted, raising money that is funneled back to the group in Lebanon.
Changing the designation to a terrorist entity raises the prospect of unsettling questions for Europe — how to deal with those supporters, for example — and the sort of confrontation governments have sought to avoid.
"There's the overall fear if we're too noisy about this, Hezbollah might strike again, and it might not be Israeli tourists this time," said Sylke Tempel, editor in chief of the German foreign affairs magazine Internationale Politik.
The significance of their determination has put pressure on Bulgarian officials, who would like to maintain strong ties with both Israel and the United States, which call Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and European allies like France and Germany, which do not. Bulgarian officials have maintained a studied silence for more than six months since the attack.
"They have to name a name and say who is behind the attack," said Dimitar Bechev, head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "At the same time, they don't want to go solo. Whatever they say has implications not just for Bulgaria but for the E.U. as a whole."
A spokesman for the president's office, Veselin Ninov, said that the interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, was expected to "announce the results of the interim progress report in the investigation of the Burgas attack" on Tuesday, after the meeting of the president's council for national security, which includes the prime minister, top cabinet members and military and security personnel. Mr. Ninov would not say whether responsibility for those behind the bombing or their identities would be revealed.
Bulgarian officials are acutely aware of the stakes without anything like significant lobbying by larger European Union members that would prefer not to have to deal with the Hezbollah question. "It was not a campaign," said Philipp Missfelder, a leading member of Germany's Christian Democrats and the party's foreign-policy spokesman in Parliament. "Some German officials dropped a few words."
But Mr. Missfelder said that attitudes toward Hezbollah were gradually shifting. "It's clear that they are steered from Iran and they are destabilizing the region," Mr. Missfelder said. "The group that thinks Hezbollah is a stabilizing factor is getting smaller."
Hezbollah's dual nature as what Western intelligence agencies call a terrorist organization and a political party with significant social projects, including schools and health clinics, make it more difficult to dismiss. Hezbollah is a significant political actor in Lebanon, and many European officials are particularly wary of upsetting the status quo as the civil war drags on in Syria.
A sort of modus vivendi exists where Hezbollah keeps a low profile for its fund-raising and other activities and Europeans do not crack down. In Germany alone, some 950 people have been identified as being associated with the organization as of 2011. The group has always been treated as a benign force, even if assessments of the danger it presented varied greatly.
Omid Nouripour, a Bundestag member and a Green Party spokesman on security issues, said that for years he had opposed listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. "In the situation now, with Syria, I think it's now time to isolate Hezbollah," Mr. Nouripour said.
But France remains the European Union country with the strongest engagement in Lebanon as well as in Syria, and with the most say in European policy toward Hezbollah, said François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
"The French, to the extent that it's possible, try to avoid political destabilization and radicalization in Lebanon," Mr. Heisbourg said. "The driver in France is the situation in Lebanon and the politics in Lebanon. It's not as if France didn't know that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization."
The Netherlands has already declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Britain lists only the group's militant wing as a terrorist organization, distinguishing it from the political side. The United States and Israel have been the most vocal about the group's connection to violence and ties with Iran.
"I would describe Hezbollah as the most potent terrorist organization in the world, and very disciplined," said Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush.
A tour bus carrying Israeli vacationers exploded in a fireball outside the airport in Burgas, killing seven people including the bomber. Almost immediately the attack took on political overtones, with international echoes in Jerusalem, Beirut and Tehran.
Immediately after the bombing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel blamed Iran and what officials there call its surrogate, Hezbollah, for the attack. Shortly afterward an American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Tehran had given "broad guidance" to Hezbollah to attack Israeli targets when the opportunity presented itself. A senior government official in Israel said intelligence had identified telephone calls between Lebanon and Burgas in the two months leading up to the bombing, with a spike in the three days before the attack.
The bombing, which came in the wake of several near-misses and foiled plots against Israeli interests around the world, was widely seen as retribution for the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, part of what analysts have called a shadow war pitting Iran and Hezbollah against Israel. Iran blames Israel for the assassinations of several nuclear scientists. Israel says Hezbollah and Iran are behind a series of attacks on Israeli targets in India, Georgia, Thailand and elsewhere, in addition to the Burgas bombing.
Shortly after the attack Prime Minister Boiko Borisov of Bulgaria called the group behind it "an exceptionally experienced" team, and described the attack as a conspiracy with multiple members, not the act of an individual. A member of the country's security establishment said that there was a "clear direction that points to Hezbollah" in both the pattern of the attack and the evidence.
But the Bulgarians stopped short of formally blaming Hezbollah at the time. Six months have passed without a determination by Bulgarian officials.
"If you factor in the suspicion that there are political implications beyond Bulgaria's borders," said the European council's Mr. Bechev, "it's completely understandable that they've been playing for time."
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