The curious case of Bulgaria and the secret Hamas visit

Svetoslav T Ivanov and Kim Sengupta report on the 'Guerrilla diplomats' deported after arriving in Sofia unannounced

A raid by secret service officers on a number of hotel rooms today ended an extraordinary first visit to the European Union by Hamas. The delegation from the Palestinian organisation was deported by the Bulgarian government, which had earlier insisted it had no knowledge of Hamas’s presence in the country.

Confusion continued over the exercise in “guerrilla diplomacy” by Hamas, which has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the EU. As the departing group was driven to the airport, its members declared this was not the end of the affair. “There will be similar visits to foreign countries soon,” one of them promised.

The prospect of flying columns of Hamas officials arriving in Western European capitals unannounced caused bewilderment among diplomats. In London, a member of the Foreign Office's Middle East desk was sniffy: “It’ll be good for getting air miles for Hamas, I suppose, but I can assure you they certainly won’t be let in.”

Bulgaria’s recent entry into the EU has led to fears in Western Europe that hordes of uninvited guests from the country would soon be turning up. Being on the receiving end of uninvited guests appeared to have thrown the Bulgarian government into consternation. At first, Vesela Cherneva, a foreign ministry spokesman, denied that such a visit was taking place. But when the Palestinian party surfaced in Sofia, the Foreign Minister, Nikolay Mladenov, was forced to confirm their presence, saying: “The visit of the three Palestinians is not official and they will not be received by any Bulgarian state officials; our contact is with the Palestinian Authority [Fatah] through the government in Ramallah.”

Mr Mladenov refused to comment on how the Palestinians had obtained their visas, but acknowledged that the three were not on a banned list. So why were they expelled? It was the secret service’s decision, he revealed. The State Agency for National Security was unequivocal, saying: “Information was received which gives reasons to believe that their presence poses a serious threat to national security.”

The visit comes at a time when Bulgaria has become caught up in the violent strife of the Middle East, with five Israeli tourists and a local bus driver killed in a bomb blast in Bulgaria’s  Black Sea resort of Burgas last July.

An investigation by Bulgarian, US and Israeli officials concluded that the Lebanon-based Hezbollah – a key Hamas ally – was behind the attack, leading to calls for the group to be put on the EU’s terror blacklist. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said this week: “We believe the EU must take robust action in response to the terrorist attack. Investigation has indicated that Hezbollah’s military wing was responsible. The EU must demonstrate that no organisation can carry out terrorism on European soil without consequence.”

The Hamas delegation held that Western politicians were being too free with the T-word. “It is wrong to declare a country or movement ‘terrorist’ without hearing their point of view,” said Salah Bardawil, the delegation’s leader. “I hope that with this visit we will succeed in achieving some dialogue with the EU and this will be a door to improve our relations.”

Asked whether Hezbollah was behind the bombing of Israeli tourists, Mr Bardawil said: “We haven’t thought about this matter. It is of no concern to us and we have no opinion about it. We believe the investigation will reveal the truth. We are here to explain our point of view on the Palestinian issue. But we are happy to come to a people who are friendly to us.”

The fact that any such friendship did not extend to the Bulgarian government became apparent with the raid this morning.

“This was due to Israeli pressure, it’s obvious,” said one of the delegation.

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