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Qassem dismisses Bulgaria charges, accuses Israel of global terror campaign

FILE - In this Thursday, July 19, 2012 file photo a damaged bus is transported out of Burgas airport, Bulgaria, a day after a deadly suicide attack on a bus full of Israeli vacationers. U.S. officials expect Bulgarian investigators to link the militant group Hezbollah to the July 18 attack in the coastal city of Burgas, in which a bomb ripped through a bus that was taking the tourists to their hotel. (AP Photo/ Impact Press Group, File)

BEIRUT: Hezbollah indirectly dismissed Wednesday Bulgaria’s charges that it was involved in a bus bomb attack that killed five Israeli tourists last year, and instead accused Israel of waging a global terror campaign against it.

Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said Israel made the allegations and accusations against the resistance party because it had failed to defeat it in the 2006 war.

“Israel is leading a global campaign to confront the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine. Israel is leading an international campaign to intimidate people and countries against Hezbollah because it failed in the [2006] aggression against it and also failed in inciting people against it,” Qassem said during a meeting with religious students in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

However, he did not make a direct reference to the Bulgarian accusations.

“The Israeli campaign of accusations, allegations and incitements against Hezbollah which some in Lebanon have adopted is targeting the resistance through media and politics after they failed to defeat the resistance in war and confrontation,” Qassem said. He was clearly referring to some March 14 politicians who warned of the consequences of Hezbollah’s alleged involvement in the Bulgaria attack on Lebanon’s image.

Qassem said Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, would not be affected by the Bulgarian accusations. “The resistance, God willing, is strong and will increase its equipment and training ... All these accusations against Hezbollah will have no effect, and do not change the facts,” Qassem said. “We will continue in our popular and resistance position which protects Lebanon.”

Qassem’s remarks came a day after Bulgarian authorities said their investigation into the bus bombing in July of 2012 in Burgas linked Hezbollah to the two men involved in the attack. The bombing killed five Israeli tourists and wounded the Bulgarian driver.

The Bulgarian government said two people using Canadian and Australian passports linked to Hezbollah had been behind the July 18 bombing of a bus at the Black Sea Burgas airport.

The accusation led to renewed calls by Israel and the U.S. on the EU to brand Hezbollah a “terrorist” organization. The Netherlands has them blacklisted while Britain reserves the designation for their armed wing. U.S. President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, his nominee to head the CIA, urged European states to take “pro-active action” to uncover Hezbollah’s infrastructure, financing and operational networks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Bulgarian finding that Hezbollah was behind the bombing should push the EU to draw the “necessary conclusions” about the group, hinting it should be placed on a terror watch list.

Netanyahu’s office said Wednesday in a statement that the head of Israel’s counterterrorism bureau told the victims’ families in his name that “Israel will do everything so that those responsible for the crime will pay the price.”

Responding to Bulgaria’s accusation, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Tuesday that Lebanon was ready to cooperate with Sofia in its investigation and that Lebanon condemned any attack on any Arab or foreign country.

In Brussels, an EU foreign affairs spokeswoman said the EU would consider adding Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations if it was implicated in the Bulgaria bombing. However, she said listing the group was just one of several options and said no decision had been taken.

“Currently, Hezbollah is not on the list of terrorist organizations in the EU and member states will look into several options. This is one of them but not the only one,” Maja Kocijancic told reporters. EU foreign ministers meet on Feb. 18 for a regular gathering at which the issue could be discussed.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for action if it emerges that there is solid evidence linking Hezbollah to the attack. “Chancellor Angela Merkel completely condemns the disgraceful attack in Burgas,” her spokesman said. “If there is confirming evidence that Hezbollah is responsible for this detestable attack, there must be consequences.”

But AFP quoted diplomats in Brussels as saying that the EU was unlikely to bow to U.S. pressure to brand Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged the EU to follow Washington’s lead by designating Hezbollah as terrorists in a move that will notably lead to a crackdown on its fund-raising activities.

In Sofia, Bulgaria’s foreign minister defended himself against accusations that Sofia lacked the proof to blame Hezbollah for the Burgas attack.

“If Bulgaria did not have enough arguments to announce yesterday that the traces in this attack lead to Hezbollah’s military wing, we would not have done it,” Nikolay Mladenov said on BNT television Wednesday.

However, Bulgaria’s opposition criticized the government’s accusation against Hezbollah, saying the conclusion was unjustified and dangerous. The opposition parties said the government acted under Israeli and U.S. pressure.

“It is an unjustifiable act that is very dangerous,” Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev said. “The government entered into an international political game in an irresponsible manner, without calculating the consequences.”

The nationalist Attack and ethnic Turkish MRF party joined the Socialist criticism, saying it was too soon for the rightist government of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov to blame Hezbollah because the investigation had not yet concluded.

Stanimir Florov, head of Bulgaria’s anti-terror unit, said Wednesday the names of the suspects were known, they were now based in the same country and “we have asked Lebanese authorities to assist in our investigation.” He did not elaborate.

In Beirut, President Michel Sleiman said the Bulgarian accusations against Hezbollah were being reviewed and that the Lebanese authorities were waiting to receive all documents related to the case from the Bulgarian public prosecutor.

Speaker Nabih Berri linked the Bulgarian accusations against Hezbollah to internal political interests in Bulgaria as the country was preparing for parliamentary elections. The accusation against Hezbollah “is not in the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese, but it serves the enemies of Lebanon, especially [since] the issue has an internal political character in Bulgaria, which is preparing for elections,” Berri was quoted by lawmakers as saying.

The March 14 Secretariat General warned of the consequences of the Bulgarian accusations against Hezbollah.

“Such accusations will have political and non-political repercussions on Lebanon, especially if the European Union decides to label Hezbollah as a terrorist group,” the group said in a statement. It added that listing Hezbollah as a terrorist group would damage Lebanon’s image.

“The Lebanese people refuse to become hostages to Hezbollah and put their interests in a confrontation with the world,” the statement said – With agencies

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 07, 2013, on page 1.

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