Bulgaria’s Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said on Tuesday two individuals with links to Lebanon’s Shi’ite group Hezbollah were involved in a bomb attack on a bus in the Bulgarian resort of Burgas that killed five Israeli tourists last July and a Bulgarian national.
The conclusions of the Bulgarian investigation may open the way for the European Union to join the United States in branding the 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 of whom had genuine passports from Australia and Canada, Tsvetanov told reporters after Bulgaria’s national security council discussed the investigation.
“We have established that the two were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” Tsvetanov said. “There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.”
Tsvetanov said the suspected terrorists entered Bulgaria on June 28 and remained until July 18. He added that the Canadian and Australian passport holders lived in Lebanon between 2006 and 2010. Tsvestanov said their drivers licenses were “forged in Lebanon,” and that Bulgaria was able to piece together the movements of two of the suspects from Lebanon to Europe.
Tsvetanov thanked Israel’s government for its support with the Bulgarian investigation.
He said Israel provided “relevant expertise” in identifying the false documents used by the alleged terrorists.
Bloodstains of the suspect with a Michigan driver’s license correspond to the man who blew himself up at the Burgas airport, said Tsvetanov.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded to the Bulgarian investigation by calling on the EU, which Israel has pressed for some two decades to put Hezbollah on its terrorist list, to “draw the necessary conclusions.”
In a statement issued after the Bulgarians released their report implicating Hezbollah in the July 2012 attack in Burgas, Netanyahu – apparently noting that Bulgaria referred to Hezbollah’s “militant wing” – stressed that “there is only one Hezbollah, it is one organization with one leadership.”
Netanyahu said the findings are additional proof of what Israel has long known, that Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors are waging a terrorist war that “spans borders and continents.”
He said that the attack in Bulgaria was just one of many that Hezbollah and Iran have planned and carried out, including attacks in Thailand, Kenya, Turkey, India, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Georgia.
“All this is happening in parallel to the deadly support given by Hezbollah and Iran to the murderous Assad regime in Syria,” Netanyahu said.
“The attack in Burgas was an attack on European soil against an EU country,” Netanyahu said.
“We hope the Europeans will draw the necessary conclusions regarding the true nature of Hezbollah.”
Netanyahu thanked the Bulgarians for what he said was their “thorough and professional” investigation of the bombing.
The prime minister’s remarks were echoed by John Brennan, US President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism top adviser.
“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,” he said in a statement.
Brennan all but formally called on the EU to place Hezbollah on its terror list, asking Europe and 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.”
Brennan said Hezbollah’s “dangerous and destabilizing activities,” including its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, “threaten the safety and security of nations and citizens around the world.”
In comments last October, Brennan publicly chastised the EU for failing to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist entity.
Congressman Ed Royce (D-California), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was even more direct in his call to the EU, saying, “This attack on European soil makes the European Union’s resistance to designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization even more incomprehensible.”
He said that the failure of the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization “will only give these killers the opportunity to further organize, recruit, raise funds, and carry out additional terrorist attacks across the continent.”
Newly-instated US Secretary of State John Kerry urged the international community, and particularly European states, to take immediate action against Hezbollah. "We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity," he said.
"We are prepared to do all within our power to assist the Government of Bulgaria in bringing those responsible for the Burgas attack to justice," Kerry added.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, meanwhile, said that the “implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously.” She made no recommendations, and said only that there is “the need for a reflection over the outcome of the investigation. The EU and Member States will discuss the appropriate response based on all elements identified by the investigators.”
Some in Europe, however, have already made up their minds. Dutch Ambassador to Israel Caspar Veldkamp said the Netherlands believes Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.
“It was designated as such by the Netherlands five years ago, and we continue to hope that the EU as a whole will do the same,” he said.
British foreign secretary William Hague welcomed the investigatory results and praised the Bulgarian authorities for their methodical work.
“I pay tribute to the Bulgarian authorities for their excellent investigatory work,” he said.
The British government urged the EU last year to follow its lead and outlaw “the military wing of Hezbollah.”
Hague said in his statement, “It is important that the EU respond robustly to an attack on European soil. Every act of terror is an attack on our shared values.
In committing an attack, terrorists seek to undermine our resolve, but they should only serve to strengthen it. The Home Secretary and I will be talking to our EU colleagues about the measures we can now take to continue to make our citizens safer.”
Hague’s statement about “measures” was nebulous, however.
It is unclear if the United Kingdom will now seek a complete ban of Hezbollah within the EU.
Hezbollah’s number 2 leader Naim Qassem rejected the British separation of his organization into political and military wings. He told the LA Times in 2009, “The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel.”
Assen Agov, a Bulgarian MP with the center-right Democrats for Strong Bulgaria party, told The Jerusalem Post
that Hezbollah should be included in the EU-terror list.
“Once people perish on the soil of the EU, then Hezbollah should be pronounced as a terrorist organization,” he said.
Agov joins the German MP Philipp Missfelder – a deputy in the Bundestag and foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party – in the growing pressure to isolate Hezbollah.
Missfelder told the Post
, “By no means can the EU tolerate that this group operates from European soil. Therefore it is absolutely urgent to put this group on the EU terror list.”
Germany and France have been the most recalcitrant countries among the major EU powers, resisting a ban of Hezbollah.
According to Western news reports, both governments lobbied Bulgaria not to explicitly attribute the Burgas attack to Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s membership in Germany has increased from 900 in 2010 to a current figure of 950. The Lebanese political movement fundraises extensively in Germany and across Europe.
Gilles de Kerchove, the coordinator of the EU’s counterterrorism bureau in Brussels, came under fire in late January for suggesting that in the event there is a link between Hezbollah and Burgas, the EU should consider avoiding branding Hezbollah an illicit organization.
Missfelder slammed Gilles de Kerchove’s position, terming the EU official’s statement “counterproductive.”
Tehran has denied responsibility and accused Israel of plotting and carrying out the blast.
Hezbollah has not publicly responded to charges by Israel and US agencies that it played a role.
The Netherlands said in August that the EU should follow the lead of the US, which designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in the 1990s, a move that would enable the EU to freeze Hezbollah’s assets in Europe.
Tsvetanov said the investigation is ongoing and deemed his government’s work so far as “progress.”Reuters and JPost.com staff contributed to this report.