Bulgaria Implicates Hezbollah in Deadly Israeli Bus Blast
by Nicholas Kulish and Matthew Brunwasser
The Bulgarian government said Tuesday that two of the people behind a deadly bombing attack that targeted an Israeli tourist bus six months ago were believed to be members of the military wing of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The announcement could force the European Union to reconsider whether to designate the group as a terrorist organization and crack down on its extensive fund-raising operations across the continent. That could have wide-reaching repercussions for Europe's uneasy détente with the group, which is an influential force in Middle East politics, considers Israel an enemy and has extensive links with Iran.
Bulgaria's interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, said at a news conference that the investigation into the bombing in Burgas in July 2012 found that a man with an Australian passport and a man with a Canadian passport were two of the three conspirators involved in the attack, which claimed the lives of five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver.
Bulgarian investigators had "a well-founded assumption that they belonged to the military formation of Hezbollah," Mr. Tsvetanov said.
Bulgarian officials have found themselves under pressure from Israel and the United States, which consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, to blame it for the bus attack. But the Bulgarians also have been facing pressure from European allies like Germany and France, which regard Hezbollah as a legitimate political organization, to temper any finding on the sensitive issue.
Mr. Tsvetanov spoke to reporters here after briefing top government officials and security personnel about the state of the investigation.
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, and European allies like France and Germany. Bulgarian officials had maintained a studied silence for more than six months since the attack.
"If you factor in the suspicion that there are political implications beyond Bulgaria's borders, it's completely understandable that they've been playing for time," said Dimitar Bechev, head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Tsvetanov spoke after the meeting of the president's council for national security, which includes the prime minister, top cabinet members and military and security personnel.
Bulgarian officials are acutely aware of the consequences of their findings even though larger European Union members did not exert blatant pressure on them regarding the Hezbollah question. "It was not a campaign," said Philipp Missfelder, a leading member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the foreign-policy spokesman for the party 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, 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 vary greatly.
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