Friday, July 20, 2012

Hezbollah Is Blamed in Attack on Israeli Tourists in Bulgaria

New York Times

BURGAS, Bulgaria — A senior American official confirmed Israel’s assertions on Thursday that the suicide bomber who killed five Israelis in an attack here on Wednesday was a member of a Hezbollah cell operating in Bulgaria.
The official said the current American intelligence assessment is that the bomber was “acting under broad guidance” to hit Israeli targets when the opportunity presented itself. That guidance was given to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, by its primary sponsor, Iran, he said.
The attacks, the official said, were in retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists by Israeli agents, something that Israel has neither confirmed nor denied. “This was tit for tat,” said the American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the investigation was still underway.
The bombing comes at a time of heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes but Israel and the West say is a cover for developing weapons. Iran has sworn to exact revenge for a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists that it blames on Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied its role.
A senior Israeli official said on Thursday that the Burgas attack was part of an intensive wave of terrorist attacks around the world carried out by two different organizations, the Iranian Quds Force, an elite international operations unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as Hezbollah.
“They work together when necessary, and separately when not necessary,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss national security issues.
While the the Burgas attack fit the modus operandi of Hezbollah, the Israeli official said, it was not clear whether the bomber intended to blow himself up or had suffered what the official called a “work accident,” adding: “We will never know.”
The bomber was carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license, but there are no indications that he had any connections to the United States, the American official said, adding that there were no details yet about the bomber — his name, age or nationality. He also declined to describe what specific intelligence — intercepted communications, analysis of the bomber’s body parts and other details — that led analysts to conclude that the suicide bomber belonged to Hezbollah.
“This looks like he was hanging out for a local target, and when this popped up he jumped on it,” the official said, referring to a tour bus carrying Israeli vacationers outside the airport in Burgas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a news conference Thursday in Jerusalem that the attack in Burgas was carried out by “Hezbollah, the long arm of Iran.”
For their part, Iranian officials condemned the attack and all acts of terrorism. “Terrorism endangers the lives of innocents,” said a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast, according to Iran’s state Arabic-language television channel, Al Alam.
The Bulgarian authorities released a security video Thursday showing the suspect wandering into the arrivals hall at the airport here, for all appearances just another tourist in his plaid shorts, Adidas T-shirt and baseball hat.
But it is his oddly bulky, oversized backpack that, in terrible hindsight, stands out the most. This bag, investigators believe, contained the bomb that the man is suspected of detonating next to a bus outside the airport, killing the five Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and himself in a fireball that upended this city on the Black Sea.
The suicide attack, the country’s first, sent police and intelligence officers from Bulgaria, Israel and the United States scrambling to identify the bomber and to look for possible accomplices and convincing evidence that would connect him to Hezbollah or Iran.
Officials here have said they have the man’s fingerprints and his DNA, and are trying to identify a man who was roughly 36 years old, whom they suspect was in the country between four and seven days before the blast.
The Bulgarians are still trying to figure out how the bomber entered the country, how he traveled around the country and where he stayed.
The police released the 14 seconds of video in the hopes that the man would be recognized. Beyond that, investigators had more questions than answers, and two nations were in mourning.
“We’re not pointing the finger in any direction until we know what happened and complete our investigation,” said Nickolay Mladenov, Bulgaria’s foreign minister, said in an interview. He was speaking in front of the airport on Thursday, where three giant flags, one for Bulgaria, one for Burgas and one for the European Union, flew at half-mast on a sunny day with blue skies, and with swimmers nearby enjoying the water undisturbed by the news.
Israeli officials were swift to blame Iran on Wednesday in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, and Mr. Netanyahu did not let up on Thursday. “The time has come for all countries that know the truth to speak it,” he said at the news conference. “Iran is the one behind the wave of terror. Iran is the No. 1 exporter of terror in the world.”
Mr. Netanyahu added: “A terrorist state must not have a nuclear weapon.”
Bulgarian authorities said they were working together with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Israeli intelligence services and Interpol. Mr. Tsvetanov, the interior minister, said that the F.B.I. determined that the driver’s license was a fake and that the person described on the card did not exist. He said that Bulgarian government had spoken with John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, overnight.
Speaking at the Central Synagogue in Sofia, home to most of the 5,000 Bulgarian Jews, United States Ambassador James Warlick, expressed his “outrage and horror at the terrorist incident that happened yesterday in Burgas.”
The head of Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani, criticized the United States for not condemning the bombing in Damascus on Wednesday that struck at President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, killing three senior defense officials, including his brother-in-law.
“By not condemning the assassination in Syria, the Americans show that they believe in good assassinations and bad assassinations,” Mr. Larijani said, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.
An Israeli Defense Force plane carried 33 of the wounded back to Israel from Burgas on Thursday morning, dispersing passengers to hospitals around the country, a military spokesman in Jerusalem said. The dead were flown back Thursday evening following a ceremony at the airport, which had reopened several hours beforehand.
Nicholas Kulish reported from Burgas, Bulgaria, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Matthew Brunwasser from Burgas, Bulgaria, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran and Boryana Dzhambazova in Paris.

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