Bulgaria implicated Hezbollah in the bombing of a tourist bus last year that killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver, prompting Israel and the U.S. to renew calls for the European Union to designate the Lebanese militant group a terrorist organization.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov told reporters yesterday that his government’s investigation found “evidence of links and financing” from Hezbollah based on information about the suspected conspirators.
The U.S. and Israel, which have designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group, have pressed the EU to do the same. The evidence in the Bulgarian attack may increase pressure now to do so.
“The implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously as they relate to a terrorist attack on EU soil,” the spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement yesterday. “The EU and member states are committed to the fight against terrorism, whoever stands behind it.”
The EU treats Hezbollah as a Lebanese political and social movement that also has a militant arm. The EU has lacked a consensus needed to designate the group a terrorist organization, which would block its fundraising and other activities in Europe, because some Europeans governments see it as a legitimate political organization and a powerful influence in Lebanon.
Calling the Bulgarian finding “very significant,” Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said it undermines the EU’s argument that Hezbollah shouldn’t be labeled a terrorist group because it never carried out an attack or killed Europeans on their territory.
“Now the EU is going to have a much harder time making that justification,” Oren said in a phone interview.
Two of the suspects in the July 18 attack on a tourist bus parked at the airport near Burgas, a popular holiday spot on the Black Sea, are holders of an Australian and a Canadian passport who have lived in Lebanon since 2006, Tsvetanov told reporters in the capital Sofia.
Bulgarian authorities have a “well-grounded assumption” that they were members of Hezbollah’s military wing, he said. The third suspect is still unidentified, he said.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird confirmed yesterday that one suspect was a dual national with Canadian citizenship living in Lebanon. Baird, speaking to reporters in Ottawa, said he’s been encouraging the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Australian Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor said that he wouldn’t comment on intelligence matters beyond saying officials are working on the case, according to the website of Australia’s ABC Radio National.
Bulgarian and Israeli experts cooperated to identify the suspects in coordination with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, Tsvetanov said.
Shortly after the the suicide attack in which the bomber died, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “all signs lead to Iran” and threatened a forceful response. Yesterday, in an e-mailed statement, he said that Hezbollah “and its patron, Iran, are directing a global terror network.” Europe should “draw the needed conclusions about Hezbollah and its true character,” he said.
The U.S. said Bulgaria’s investigation provides further evidence of Hezbollah’s terrorist activities, urging the EU to take steps to obstruct the the Shiite militant group.
“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,” President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan said yesterday in a statement.
“We call on our European partners as well as other members of 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,” he said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. doesn’t share what has been the EU’s view of a distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings. She said the group has turned to European banks to get around U.S. sanctions.
“We have been in discussion with EU countries, both bilaterally and as a union, for some time about our concerns about what Hezbollah is up to, our hope that firmer action could be taken,” she told reporters in Washington yesterday.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said “it is important that the EU respond robustly to an attack on European soil.”
“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,” he said.
The investigation of the bus bombing continues, and Bulgaria has requested assistance from law enforcement authorities in Lebanon, Canada and Australia, Tsvetanov said. The government also tightened security of its embassy in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, the foreign ministry in Sofia said in a statement.
“The Bulgarian government and its leaders deserve praise for thoroughly investigating this terrorist attack and for their courage in implicating Hezbollah,” U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said in an e-mailed statement.
“The targeting of innocents cannot be tolerated by any European Union state and must be condemned forcefully and unanimously by all member nations,” said Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The time is now for the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and punish these murderers.”
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