Seven people were killed and 33 wounded in the bombing of a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria on Wednesday. The bombing took place on the 18th anniversary of a terror attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the latest attack on the same perpetrator: Iran.
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Netanyahu said Israel would respond "firmly" to the attack, which targeted a bus ferrying Israeli tourists from the airport to the Bulgarian resort town of Burgas.
Netanyahu on Wednesday spoke on the telephone to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, who expressed condolences for the Israelis killed in the attack. Borisov told Netanyahu he will cooperate fully with Israel in investigating the attack and said it was not only an attack on Israel but also on Bulgaria.
The bombing 18 years ago that killed 85 people at AMIA, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, was a joint venture between Iran and Hezbollah. Over the last few years, similar joint attacks on Israeli targets overseas have been thwarted repeatedly.
For Iran, the stated motive is revenge for the assassination of several nuclear scientists in recent years, while for Hezbollah, it is revenge for the 2008 killing of its operations chief, Imad Mughniyeh. Iran and Hezbollah blame Israel for all these killings, though Israel has neither confirmed nor denied it.
Wednesday's incident began at 4:45 P.M., when an Air Burgas charter flight from Israel landed at the local airport. The passengers - 151 Israelis and three foreign nationals - then boarded buses to their hotels along the Black Sea coast. At about 5:30 P.M., a bomb went off in one of the buses. The explosion also damaged two other buses that were parked nearby awaiting their Israeli passengers. Some of the passengers were thrown from the burning bus by the force of the blast, while others jumped from the windows to escape the flames.
Six people were killed on the spot, and a seventh died in the hospital. According to Bulgarian media reports, one of those killed was a local tour guide; the other six were Israeli tourists. Of the 33 people who were wounded, two were seriously injured and the rest were lightly to moderately hurt.
Bulgarian security forces rushed to the scene and began investigating. At first, they thought a suicide bomber had boarded the bus and blown himself up, but it later turned out that a bomb had been planted in the vehicle's cargo compartment.
Tzipora Levy of Jerusalem, an eyewitness to the attack, said she and her friend had been spared because they stopped to smoke a last cigarette before boarding the bus. "I saw flying objects and smoke, and we ran to the other side," she said by cell phone.
Gal Malka told Channel 2 television that the explosion occurred immediately after she and her friend Ron Farhan boarded the bus.
"Suddenly someone got on, it blew up. We heard a boom and saw pieces flying around," Malka said. "We tried to run. The door was closed, but there was a hole and we escaped through that and started to run into a field. There were many people killed, and a lot of screaming. It took them a long time to evacuate people."
Itzik Levy, who runs a Chabad restaurant in Burgas, told Haaretz that hours after the bombing, most of the Israelis - more than 100 people - were still stuck at the airport. He said the Bulgarian police wouldn't let them leave until they had given statements. But the passengers "didn't seem that frightened," Levy said. "They were a little angry. Some of them want to return to Israel and aren't interested in anything else. Others want to stay."
Meanwhile, back in Israel, confusion reigned in the defense establishment, which had trouble getting clear information about the attack, the victims or even the list of passengers aboard the plane. Israel's ambassador to Bulgaria reached the scene only four hours after word of the attack was first received.
The Foreign Ministry eventually decided to send two planeloads of aid to Bulgaria, including members of the ZAKA organization to assist in identifying the victims. Given the condition of the bodies, identification is expected to be difficult. The planes will also carry seven paramedics and three doctors with experience treating victims of terror attacks. Based on these doctors' reports, the ministry will decide whether to send a plane to evacuate the wounded back to Israel.
Netanyahu said the information in Israel's possession indicates that Iran was behind the attack. "All signs point towards Iran," he said in a statement. "Over the last few months we have seen Iran's attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Georgia, Kenya, Cyprus and other countries. Exactly 18 years to the day after the horrendous attack on the Jewish Community Center in Argentina, deadly Iranian terrorism continues to strike at innocent people. This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react firmly to it."
But Hezbollah denied all involvement in the attack yesterday, telling the Lebanese media, "We have no connection to this incident. Our revenge for the death of Imad Mughniyeh will not be an attack on tourists."
And a senior Israeli official said there is still no solid information as to who was behind the attack. Israel received no advance warning of any planned attack against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, he added.
In January, suspicious packages were discovered aboard a bus taking Israeli tourists to a ski resort in Bulgaria, after which the country stepped up its security for Israeli tourists. But it later turned out the suspicious packages weren't a terror attack.
In response to yesterday's bombing, the Shin Bet security service delayed the takeoff of 11 flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Eastern Europe. In addition, the mayor of Bulgaria's capital city, Sofia, urged his government to beef up security around the Israeli Embassy and Jewish sites in the city.
Both the United States and the European Union condemned the attack. White House spokesman Jay Carney said he had no information on whether Iran was behind it, "But I want to be clear that the United States condemns such attacks on innocent people, especially children, in the strongest possible terms. The president's thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and those injured. We also stand with the people of Israel and the people of Bulgaria in this difficult time. Going forward, the United States will support our friends and allies as they confront terrorism. And of course our commitment to Israel's security remains unshakable."
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top foreign policy official, said she was shocked by the attack and hoped the perpetrators would be brought to justice quickly.
American Jewish organizations also voiced shock at the attack and offered condolences to the victims and their families. "We are shocked and saddened by the bus bombing targeting innocent young Israelis traveling in Bulgaria," said Kathy Manning, chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America. "We offer our deepest condolences to the families of the victims and stand shoulder to shoulder with all of the Jewish People in condemning this horrific act of violence."
"This latest attack is another deadly reminder of the true nature of the enemies of Israel - and of all who value human dignity," added David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "Through our tears and outrage, we extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of the Israelis killed in this heinous bombing, and our wishes and prayers for the full recovery of those injured."