U.S., Israel pressure EU over Hezbollah after Bulgaria says group behind bus attack

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Israel and the United States on Tuesday urged the European Union to declare the Lebanese group Hezbollah a terrorist organization after the Bulgarian government announced that Hezbollah militants were behind the bombing of a tour bus last July that killed five Israeli tourists in that country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Europe to draw the "proper conclusions" from the investigation into the blast, which found that a Hezbollah cell that included a Canadian and an Australian had carried out the attack at the airport in the coastal city of Burgas.

"The attack in Burgas was an attack on European land against a member of the European Union. We hope the Europeans learn the proper conclusions from this about the true character of Hezbollah," Netanyahu said.

The White House echoed the Israeli premier’s statements, with President Barak Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, calling on European countries to take "proactive action" to uncover Hezbollah’s infrastructure, financing and operational networks in Europe.

European officials were more cautious. Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign policy, issued a statement that said the “implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously as they relate to a terrorist attack on EU soil.”

There was no immediate reaction from Hezbollah, and the group’s spokesman was unavailable for comment. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful political player, previously had denied involvement in the bombing. After the Bulgarian findings were announced, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the attack and said his country would cooperate fully in any investigation.

The release of the Bulgarian findings was the first definitive word on the July 18 attack. Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said investigators had determined that Hezbollah, a militant Shiite Muslim movement sworn to Israel’s destruction, had plotted and carried out the "sophisticated" attack.

They said they were seeking more information on two suspects who are apparently still at large.

"We have established that the two were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah," Tsvetanov said. "There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects."

Tsvetanov said Bulgaria had established that they "had Canadian and Australian passports, (and) lived in Lebanon since 2006 and 2010."

He said the two suspects and a third person had used counterfeit Michigan driver’s licenses manufactured in Lebanon to rent hotel rooms and cars in the weeks before the attack.

"From these three fake personalities, we established beyond doubt two persons’ real identity," Tsvetanov said.

Tsvetanov didn’t identify the two individuals, but Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters in that country that one was a Canadian-Lebanese dual national who’s thought to be still at large. He declined, however, to provide the suspect’s name. "I can confirm the individual in question is a dual national who resides in Lebanon,” he said.

There was no comment from the Australian government.

DNA and fingerprints were taken from the third attacker, who died when the bag he was carrying exploded on the bus, which was carrying Israeli tourists at the Burgas airport.

There have been conflicting reports on whether the third attacker had intended to detonate the bomb, or whether it had been done remotely. The Associated Press on Tuesday quoted the director of the European police organization Europol, Rob Wainwright, as saying that the explosion had been detonated remotely and that investigators thought the third attacker hadn’t intended to die.

Baird went further.

"We urge the European Union and all partners who have not already done so to list Hezbollah as a terrorist entity and prosecute terrorist acts committed by this inhumane organization to the fullest possible extent," he said, adding that Canada would work with Bulgarian authorities, given the apparent involvement of "a dual national living in Lebanon."

Ashton, the EU’s top foreign and security official, said the EU needed to assess the implications of the investigation but stressed that any decision on adding Hezbollah to the EU list of terrorist organizations would require a unanimous decision by the foreign ministers of the 27 EU countries, whose next scheduled meeting is Feb. 18. Such a move would freeze Hezbollah’s assets and cut off funding.

The bombing was the deadliest attack on Israelis abroad since 2004, when 34 people – including 12 Israelis – were killed in a series of three bombing attacks at hotels in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Israeli officials said the finding didn’t surprise them. They pointed out that Israel had named Hezbollah and its backers in Iran as the perpetrators immediately after the bombing, adding that the attack had "the fingerprints of Hezbollah all over it from day one."

"It was clear right at the outset that Hezbollah was behind this. Bulgarian intelligence wanted to dig deeper. They came out with solid conclusions about the direct responsibility of Hezbollah, and Iran," one senior Israeli official said.

Tsvetanov made no mention of Iran in his remarks, however.

The senior Israeli official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he hadn’t been authorized to speak publicly, said the bombing was one of many carried out against Israeli targets in countries ranging from Georgia and Azerbaijan to India and Kenya.

"The bottom line is that here we have yet another Hezbollah bombing against civilians, this time on European soil. It’s high time that the EU did something," he said. "For the EU to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization . . . we consider it an inevitable step."

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Gutman reported from Istanbul. Twitter: @sheeraf, @RoyGutmanMcC

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