Middle East

Many Questions Remain After Bulgarian Bus Bombing

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Robert Siegel talks with Nicholas Kulish, Berlin bureau chief of the New York Times, about the investigation into a deadly attack on Israeli tourists at a Bulgarian tourist destination. The Israelis believe that the Islamist militant group Hezbollah is behind the attack, with help from Iran, but Bulgarian officials have been hesitant to assign responsibility for the bombing that killed six people as well as the bomber.


There are many unanswered questions about the bombing last week that claimed the lives of five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver. The bombing in the Bulgarian seaside resort of Burgas also injured more than 30 people. Israel's prime minister says it was the work of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. Bulgaria's interior minister has denied media reports that the bombing was pulled off by a Hezbollah cell based in that country.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Kulish is The New York Times Berlin bureau chief. He's back from Bulgaria where he was covering this story and joins us now. And let's start with the bomber. What do we know about him?

NICHOLAS KULISH: Well, so far we don't know very much. The doctor who performed the autopsy said that he had blue eyes and fair skin. And there's a videotape in which you can see him - sort of a slender, young looking man standing in the arrival hall waiting for his victims.

SIEGEL: What about any evidence of an accomplice or accomplices?

KULISH: There seems to be pretty strong evidence suggesting that there is an accomplice. The bomber was carrying a fake Michigan driver's license. And another man who - completely different description, a darker skinned man with black hair who spoke with what witnesses said was an Arab or Middle Eastern accent - was trying to rent a car that same week in the nearby resort town. And then that's the man that police believe is one, or his only accomplice.

SIEGEL: Now, as for the Hezbollah connection, one of your New York Times colleagues says U.S. sources agree with that claim. First of all, so far as you know, is the Bulgarian interior minister just dismissing the idea of a cell based in Bulgaria, or all together the idea of Hezbollah's involvement here?

KULISH: The signals coming from the Bulgarians have been at times a little mixed. There's been some confusion and some contradictions. But from what I gather, their line has been pretty consistent that they want to wait until they've completed their investigation before they, you know, make any kind of statements like that. And I think that they're saying that they don't necessarily have that evidence in front of them; which can also mean that, you know, it's coming from a different kind of source - something that the Israelis or the U.S. have picked up in a different fashion.

SIEGEL: One theory that was made public very early on was that this could be part of a tit-for-tat between Israel and Iran; that the Iranians say Israelis have been killing their nuclear scientists, they're getting back at them. Anything to that?

KULISH: I mean, it certainly seems to be the case that there's been an escalation in either attacks on or plots to attack Israeli citizens abroad, whether that's diplomats or tourists. I mean, we just saw it today in Cyprus that a suspect there was remanded to another week in custody, in what appears to be a plot that - Prime Minister Netanyahu says a plot very similar or almost identical to the one in Bulgaria.

SIEGEL: What about the doubts I read, some doubts expressed, as to whether this was intended to be a suicide attack or that perhaps the bomber detonated the explosive not according to plan, let's say?

KULISH: This is one of the confusing subjects. One Israeli paramedic said to me if you have 2,000 people at the airport you'll get 2,000 different stories. And I think what was happening was that the tourists were milling around the bus and putting their bags in the baggage compartments underneath, if you picture a large touring bus. And so, it could have been that the bomber was trying to place his backpack in the compartment so that the bomb would then explode, maybe when they were on the highway driving.

Or some people said that he was standing up, that the backpack was on his back when he detonated and that it was more of a suicide bombing. I think unless new video footage, for instance, comes to light, I think that will be difficult to prove.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Kulish, thank you very much for talking with us today.

KULISH: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Kulish is the Berlin bureau chief of The New York Times.

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