Israel Welcomes Bulgarian Report Linking Hezbollah to Burgas Bombing

WATCH: Conclusions of Bulgarian investigation may open way for EU to join U.S. in branding Iranian-backed Hezbollah a terrorist organization; Netanyahu to EU: Don't distinguish between Hezbollah leaders and militants.

Barak Ravid
Reuters
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Barak Ravid
Reuters

Two people with links to Hezbollah were involved in the bus bombing in Bulgaria last July that killed five Israeli tourists, Bulgaria's interior minister said Tuesday.

After a six-hour cabinet meeting on the incident, the foreign minister added that the investigation showed that the Lebanese-based Shi'ite group had financed the attack.

The conclusions may open the way for the European Union to join the United States in branding Iranian-backed Hezbollah a terrorist organization, since there is now a clear connection to an attack on EU territory.

Three people were involved in the attack, two who had genuine passports from Australia and Canada, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov told reporters after Bulgaria's national security council discussed the investigation.

"There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects," Tsvetanov said. "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 Hezbollah."

All three people involved in the attack had fake Michigan driver's licenses that were printed in Lebanon, Tsvetanov said. The two suspects with Canadian and Australian passports had been living in Lebanon, one since 2006 and the other since 2010. The third suspect entered Bulgaria with them on June 28, Tsvetanov said, without giving details.

No one has been arrested in connection with the attack, and Tsvetanov said he hoped Australia, Canada and Lebanon would cooperate with the investigation.

The bomb exploded as the Israeli tourists made their way from the airport to their hotel in the Black Sea resort of Burgas. The blast also killed the Bulgarian driver and the suspected bomber, a tall and lanky pale-skinned man wearing a baseball cap and dressed like a tourist.

Although it was initially believed to be a suicide bombing, Europol Director Rob Wainwright said investigators now believed that the bomber never intended to die. He said a Europol expert who analyzed a fragment of a circuit board determined that the bomb was detonated remotely.

Netanyau: Hezbollah, Iran waging 'global terror campaign'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the European Union not to differentiate between Hezbollah's military wing and its political wing, which has joined the Lebanese government. "There is only one Hezbollah. It is one organization with one leadership," Netanyahu said in a statement.

He said Hezbollah and Iran were waging a "global terror campaign," and that he hoped the European Union would "draw the necessary conclusions" regarding Hezbollah.

The Bulgarian probe is "further confirmation of what we already knew, that Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, are waging a global terror campaign across borders and continents," said Netanyahu.

He added: "The attack in Burgas was an attack on European soil against a member of the European Union. We hope the Europeans will draw the necessary conclusions about the true character of Hezbollah."

A senior official in Jerusalem said there had been doubt in Israel over whether Bulgaria's report might be changed at the last minute because of political pressure. He was hopeful the European Union would now blacklist Hezbollah.

Even before Tuesday's statement, Israel had blamed the attack on Iran and Hezbollah. Tehran has denied responsibility and accused Israel of plotting and carrying out the blast. The investigators found no links to Iran.

Hezbollah has not publicly responded to charges by Israel and U.S. agencies that it played a role. But Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati responded to the Bulgarian report, saying his country would assist Bulgaria in its investigation. "We strongly condemn every attack on an Arab or foreign state," he said.

The Netherlands said in August that the European Union should follow the lead of the United States, which designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in the 1990s, a move that would enable the European Union to freeze Hezbollah's assets in Europe.

Britain reserves the terrorist designation for Hezbollah's armed wing but other EU member states, which have blacklisted the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, have resisted U.S. and Israeli pressure to do the same to Hezbollah.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird went further: "We urge the European Union and all partners who have not already done so to list Hezbollah as a terrorist entity and prosecute terrorist acts committed by this inhumane organization to the fullest possible extent," he said.

U.S.: Disrupt Hezbollah financing

The Obama administration also responded to the Bulgarian report on Tuesday, saying Hezbollah must be held to account for the bomb attack.

"We call on our European partners as well as other members of the international community to take proactive action to uncover Hezbollah's infrastructure and disrupt the group's financing schemes and operational networks in order to prevent future attacks," said John Brennan, a top national security adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama.

"Bulgaria's investigation exposes Hezbollah for what it is - a terrorist group that is willing to recklessly attack innocent men, women, and children, and that poses a real and growing threat not only to Europe, but to the rest of the world," Brennan, Obama's nominee to head the CIA, said in a statement.

"The United States will continue to provide the Bulgarian Government assistance in bringing the perpetrators of this heinous attack to justice."

Catherine Ashton, the top EU foreign and security official, said the European Union needed to assess the investigation's conclusions seriously but that any decision on adding Hezbollah to the EU list of terror groups needed a unanimous decision by the foreign ministers of the union's 27 countries. Their next meeting is scheduled for February 18.

Two weeks ago, Tsvetanov held a briefing on the bombing with his 27 EU counterparts in Brussels. A few days earlier, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov arrived in Israel and discussed the investigation's findings with Netanyahu.

Israel and the United States had hoped the statement would hold both Hezbollah and Iran responsible for the attack. They also feared that the statement would be ambiguous and not hold Hezbollah responsible.

Since the July 18 bombing, Israel and the United States have been pressing EU states to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization. While Britain and the Netherlands support the move, countries such as France oppose it. France, which is leading the resistance efforts, fears that holding Hezbollah responsible for the bombing would destabilize Lebanon.

Bulgaria, a member of NATO as well as the European Union, had previously said the bombing was plotted elsewhere and carried out by foreigners. Even so, that attack stoked tension in a country where Muslims make up some 15 percent of the 7.3 million population.

Smoke rising after a terrorist blast at Bulgaria's Burgas airport July 18, 2012. Credit: Reuters

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