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Middle East

Hezbollah linked to bus bombing in Bulgaria

Five Israelis were killed in the Black Sea town of Burgas last July

The Bulgarian government said that Hezbollah was behind the bombing of a tourist bus in the country last year in which five Israelis were killed.

The findings will increase the pressure on the European Union to designate the Lebanon-based militant group as a terrorist organisation.

The five Israelis were killed in the Black Sea town of Burgas last July, when a bomb exploded on the bus that was transporting them to their hotel. The driver of the bus, a Bulgarian, was also killed along with the bomber, and a further 32 Israelis were injured.

Despite the Israeli government immediately blaming Hezbollah and Iran for the attack, there was initial confusion when Bulgarian officials published CCTV footage of the supposed attacker, who appeared to be a Westerner – he was carrying what turned out to be fake Michigan state driver’s licence, had long hair and was wearing beach shorts. 

The conclusions of the Bulgarian investigation indicate that three people were involved in the attack, and that the surviving individuals are Australian and Canadian nationals.

“We have established that the two were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” said Bulgaria’s interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov. “There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.” The two have lived in Lebanon since 2006 and 2010 respectively, the AFP news agency reported.

The investigation also revealed that the “sophisticated” bomb was activated by remote-control, rather than by a suicide bomber which had initially been suspected.

Hezbollah has always denied involvement, while Tehran has blamed Israel for the attack.

The European Union is already facing calls, primarily from the US and Israel, to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, which would allow member states to freeze assets and issue travel bans against individuals.

In a statement Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said the attack in Burgas offers, “further confirmation of what we already knew, that Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, are waging a global terror campaign across borders and continents. [It] 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 spokeswoman for Catherine Ashton, the EU’s representative for foreign and security affairs, said: “The implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously as they relate to a terrorist attack on EU soil, which resulted in the killing and injury of innocent civilians… The High Representative underlines 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."

A decision to brand Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation would require unanimous support from EU members.

A number of European countries, including the UK, have already called on the union to declare Hezbollah as terrorists. Last August, the Dutch government said that Europe should follow the example of the US, which acted against Hezbollah in the 1990s.

However, others, most notably France, are against the move fearing that it could destabilise Lebanon, where Hezbollah is part of the government. There are close links between the Shia Hezbollah, the Iranian government and the administration of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The Lebanese government is trying to stop the fighting in neighbouring Syria spilling over the border.

Israel believes that Hezbollah, with which it fought a month-long war in 2006, has shifted its focus away from attacking Israel itself and has instead turned its attention to ‘soft’ targets, such as Jewish tourists in Europe. There were allegedly thwarted attacks in Greece and Cyprus last year. According to the US State Department, “Hezbollah could attack in Europe or elsewhere at any time with little or no warning.”

Israeli officials had already been briefed on the conclusions of the Bulgarian investigation, but had feared that Hezbollah would not be named.