Sofia/Jerusalem: The explosion that killed at least eight people on a tourist bus at a Bulgarian holiday resort was most likely the work of a suicide bomber, the country’s prime minister Boyko Boriso said on Thursday.
Wednesday’s attack which targeted Israeli tourists at an airport on Bulgaria’s Black Sea left at least 32 people injured, three of whom remain in intensive care and were transported overnight by a government military plane to the capital Sofia.
Security cameras at the airport show the suspected bomber was at the crime scene for at least an hour before the attack took place.
According to initial information released on Thursday, the alleged suicide bomber was of Caucasian appearance, with long hair and dressed in sportswear. Identification papers found on the suspect included a US passport and a Michigan driving licence, which is believed to be fake. It remains unclear how and when he entered Bulgaria.
James Warlick, US ambassador to Bulgaria, said on Thursday that the governments of the US, Bulgaria, and Israel would cooperate in the investigation.
On Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, blamed the incident on Iran and promised “firm” reaction.
The explosion took place near the arrivals terminal at Sarafovo airport near the Black Sea town of Burgas, 400km east of the capital Sofia, shortly after 5pm local time, according to Bulgarian national television.
“All signs point towards Iran,” Mr Netanyahu 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.”
Police and the Bulgarian interior ministry called it a terrorist attack.
President Barack Obama described the attack as barbaric. “The US will stand with our allies, and provide whatever assistance is necessary to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack,” he said on Wednesday.
Gal Malka, a witness, told Israel’s Channel 2 TV that she saw someone board the bus before it exploded.
The area around the airport was sealed off. Some reports said more than one bus had caught fire as a result of the explosion.
Local media reported that 40 Israeli tourists were on the bus. According to the airport’s website the victims had arrived on an Air Via flight from Tel Aviv at 4.50pm. After that, they got on the bus bound for Bulgaria’s largest Black Sea resort, called Sunny Beach.
Rosen Plevneliev, Bulgarian president, travelled to Burgas after hearing of the explosion, the presidential press service said.
The attack is likely to fuel longstanding Israeli concerns over the threat posed to Israeli and Jewish institutions outside the country and to Israeli tourists travelling abroad.
Suspicions over Iran’s involvement in Wednesday’s blast were fuelled not least by the fact that it came on the 18th anniversary of the massive bomb attack on a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 civilians. Argentine investigators later blamed the bombing on Iran and Hizbollah.
“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,” Mr Netanyahu said.
Bomb attacks inside Israel have become relatively rare in recent years, an achievement that Israeli security officials attribute to improved intelligence and closer co-operation with Palestinian security services.
They also point to the closure of Gaza and the construction of the controversial separation barrier that runs partly inside and partly along the outline of the occupied West Bank.
Israeli targets outside the country, however, are much harder to protect – as became clear in the string of bomb attacks aimed at Israeli diplomats in India, Thailand and Georgia in February this year.
Israeli officials at the time blamed the blasts on Iran and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement that is closely affiliated with Tehran.
Wednesday’s blast also revived memories of Israeli media reports in January of a foiled bomb attack targeting a bus that had been chartered to take Israeli tourists to a Bulgarian ski resort. An explosive device was found on the bus, the reports claimed, and Bulgarian troops were deployed in several ski resorts frequented by Israeli tourists.
An Israeli military analyst said at the time that the foiled attack could have been linked to the fourth anniversary of the assassination of the Lebanese Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a 2008 car bombing in Syria. Hizbollah has accused Israel’s intelligence service Mossad of the killing.
Meanwhile, Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news agency, said on Sunday that Bulgarian security services had prevented an attack against Israeli tourists in Sofia.
According to the report, the Bulgarians last week succeeded in finding suspicious suitcases that apparently had explosives hidden inside, meant to be placed on buses carrying Israelis to the country’s resorts. Israeli security services are investigating any links between this foiled attack and a European terror cell operated by Hizbollah.
A week earlier, Dan Shenar, head of security at the Israeli transportation ministry, told Bulgarian radio that Israel had asked Sofia to boost security protection for its citizens travelling in the country.
“Two days ago I got in touch with my colleagues in Sofia and asked them to tighten security measures around buses carrying groups of Israeli tourists between airports and hotels or vacation houses. We are well aware that buses are a weak spot in regards to security,” Mr Shenar was quoted as saying.
“This is because there are excellent security conditions at airports, but the situation is not the same outside them. This is why we made these calls. As far as I understand, local services are collaborating with us.”
Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, also pointed the finger at Iran, saying the attack was probably initiated by a group under the auspices of “either Iran or other radical Muslim groups”, also naming Hizbollah and Hamas as likely suspects.
“We have been tracking the intentions of terrorist groups such as Hizbollah, Hamas, Iranian groups and the Islamic Jihad to carry out attacks across the world for quite some time. We have a long struggle with them, which includes many successes, as well as difficult days. Today is one of those difficult days.
“It is important that Israelis continue to travel across the world, continue to travel in Israel and live their normal lives despite all the pain.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012
Posted on www.ft.com on July 19, 2012 10:42 am