BEIRUT: The Lebanese government, fearing fallout from Bulgaria’s charges that Hezbollah was involved in a deadly bus bombing that killed five Israeli tourists last July, scrambled Thursday to limit the damage to the country should the EU brand the party a terrorist organization.
Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said he had so far not received anything from Bulgarian authorities about the accusation that Hezbollah had been behind the bombing of a bus at Bulgaria’s Burgas airport near the Black Sea.
Speaking to the Voice of Lebanon radio station, Qortbawi urged rival political factions to avoid using the Bulgaria attack in internal politics and “to read the stance of the Bulgarian opposition and comply with the call made by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to seriously assess the results of the investigation.”
Ashton said she planned to hold consultations with Bulgarian officials in an attempt to shed more light on the circumstances of the Burgas attack.
In a clear allusion to renewed calls by the United States and Israel on the EU to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization following the Bulgarian accusations, Ashton said: “We have previously stressed the need for holding more analysis and thinking before taking a specific stance.”
Ashton underscored the “need for a reflection over the outcome of the investigation,” in order for EU member states to discuss “the appropriate response based on all elements identified by investigators.”
Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas called for dealing with Hezbollah’s alleged involvement in the Bulgaria bombing with “rationality, realism and wisdom” in order to avoid harming Lebanon’s relations with the international community.
“Putting Hezbollah on the terror list is not an item on the agenda of the European Council’s meeting today,” Nahhas told the Kataeb-run Voice of Lebanon radio station.
Asked what the government’s stance was on the Bulgarian accusation, he said: “The government cannot react to a media story.”
“The Lebanese government, as spelled out by President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, has affirmed that Lebanon’s ties with the outside world will have priority. We will not expose our international relations to any setback,” Nahhas said. “But we cannot anticipate the [Bulgarian] sentences and we will pursue the issue within the rules,” he added.
The Bulgarian government said Tuesday that two people using Canadian and Australian passports linked to Hezbollah had been behind the Burgas bombing that killed the five Israeli tourists and the Bulgarian driver of their bus.
However, Bulgaria’s opposition parties criticized the government’s accusation against Hezbollah, saying the conclusion was unjustified and dangerous. The opposition accused the government of acting under Israeli and U.S. pressure in making the accusation against Hezbollah. Hezbollah has indirectly dismissed the Bulgarian charges, and instead accused Israel of waging a global terror campaign against it. Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said Wednesday Israel made the “accusations, allegations and incitements” against the resistance party because it had failed to defeat it in the 2006 war.
The Cabinet did not discuss the Bulgarian accusations against Hezbollah during its meeting Wednesday.
On the day Bulgaria issued the accusations, Mikati said in a statement that Lebanon was ready to cooperate with Sofia in its investigation in order “to clarify the circumstances of the incident, serve [what was] right and safeguard justice.” He said Lebanon condemned any attack on any Arab or foreign country.
Asked why the Cabinet did not discuss the Bulgarian charges, Mikati said in remarks published by An-Nahar newspaper Thursday: “[Tuesday’s] statement was clear in its contents and reflected the Lebanese government’s official stance. There was no need, therefore, to discuss it again in the [Cabinet] session since there was a consensus on the stance as contained in the statement.”
Asked whether his statement was binding on Hezbollah, Mikati said: “The prime minister speaks for the government and expresses its official stance.”
Meanwhile, two lawmakers from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc warned of the consequences of Hezbollah’s alleged involvement in the Bulgaria attack on Lebanon’s image.
Beirut MP Ammar Houri called on Hezbollah to review its policies following the Bulgarian accusations against the party. Commenting on Hezbollah’s alleged role in the Burgas bombing, Houri told the Free Lebanon radio station: “Unfortunately, Hezbollah has further complicated matters. I think the time has come for Hezbollah to reconsider its calculations. There is no choice other than the one taken by Prime Minister Mikati on the Bulgarian accusations.”
“We are Lebanese and not Iranians living in this country. I hope that the Lebanese abroad will not pay the price for what Hezbollah is doing,” he added.
Beirut MP Jean Ogassapian warned of the “extreme gravity” of the Bulgarian accusations against Hezbollah if the EU decides to take measures against Lebanon and its government.
Speaking to the Voice of Lebanon radio station, he urged the government to hold the “necessary contacts in order to ensure that measures will not be taken against Lebanon after Bulgaria accused Hezbollah of the Burgas bombing.”
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.
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.
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian government said the bomber who killed the five Israelis in Burgas had not intended to die in the attack, but wanted to return to Lebanon with his two Hezbollah-linked accomplices.
The man “was not a kamikaze but only meant to put the ... explosive device in the baggage compartment of the bus and detonate it later from afar,” Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said in Sofia Thursday.
Tsvetanov told reporters that remote control equipment found at the scene showed the bomb could have been detonated remotely from around 10 kilometers away. “The damage would have been much bigger then,” Tsvetanov said. Instead, the device exploded, killing the bomber, five Israeli tourists and the Bulgarian driver of their bus.
The minister added that he believed the bomber had intended to flee Bulgaria and return to Lebanon, as his two accomplices had done.
Tsvetanov said Tuesday these two people had been identified as Australian and Canadian passport holders who “belonged to the military wing of Hezbollah.”
The bomber’s name is still not known, with investigators unable to find a match for his DNA and fingerprints in international databases. They also believe a fourth person was involved. – With AFP