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Terrorism: On the Bulgarian Trail

8 minute read
Kenneth W. Banta

The Italian government goes public with explosive accusations

“It was a true act of war in a time of peace,” In those extraordinary terms, Italy’s Defense Minister Lelio Lagorio last week described new revelations concerning the attempt by a Turkish terrorist to assassinate Pope John Paul II 19 months ago. Lagorio was one of four ministers who, in the space of ten hours, appeared in Rome’s ornate, 17th century Parliament to accuse Bulgaria, and by implication the Soviet Union, of standing behind Gunman Mehmet Ali Agca’s failed effort.

The normally cautious Italian politicians exuded confidence that they possessed the evidence to incriminate, at the very least, the Bulgarian secret service. Although final proof is still lacking, the government’s decision to go public with charges that had until then appeared only in the form of rumors and leaks in Italian newspapers has created one of the worst crises in years between a NATO country and a member of the Warsaw Pact. Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo announced that the Italian government had taken measures to reduce sharply Bulgaria’s diplomatic presence in Rome and to make it harder for Bulgarians to enter Italy. He expressed concern that Bulgaria’s action, if proved, would have grave consequences for East-West relations. Said he: “It would be difficult and dangerous to travel alone down a road that carries us to a conspiracy so complex and intricate.”

The fact that Italian officials would make such explosive accusations aroused intense curiosity among Italy’s allies. In the absence of detailed information about the evidence in Italian hands, most Western diplomats and intelligence officers remained cautious. The U.S. refused to make any statement supporting or denying the Italian charges. In Paris French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson noted that “the Italians are serious people. [Colombo] would not have taken the steps that you know about if there had not been some Bulgarian elements involved.”

The Italian charges prompted an emotional response last week from the Soviet Union. Leonid Zamyatin, spokesman for the Central Committee, angrily denied any Soviet or Bulgarian involvement in the papal shooting. He accused Western intelligence agencies and the Western press of conducting “a malicious campaign that has not a grain or iota of truth.” Added Zamyatin: “If these insinuations continue, it will be seen as a deliberate campaign of aggravating world tension, an evil-minded campaign to discredit Bulgaria and the Soviet Union in the eyes of Catholics.”

What had begun as mere whispers took on significance several months ago, when Agca, 24, an escaped Turkish prisoner who is now serving a life sentence in Rome for the attempted murder of the Pope, changed his previous story that he had acted alone. Instead, he said, he had been part of a conspiracy that involved at least three Bulgarian officials in Rome: Sergei Ivanov Antonov, 34, head of the Rome office of Bulgaria’s Balkan Airlines; Zhelio Vassilev, 40, a former secretary to the Bulgarian military attache in Rome; and Todor Aivazov, 39, an accountant at the Bulgarian embassy in Rome. In his speech to Parliament, Lagorio confirmed the details of Agca’s confession. He also confirmed that the reputed Turkish arms and drugs smuggler Bekir Çelenk was a key coconspirator. Çelenk, according to newspaper accounts, offered Agca $1.25 million to kill the Pope. The most dramatic corroboration seems to have come when investigators handed Agca a stack of unidentified photos. According to Lagorio, Agca unhesitatingly picked out the pictures of the three Bulgarians. Said Agca: “These are my accomplices.” He also gave the police telephone numbers that matched those of the Bulgarian embassy and Aivazov’s apartment. On the strength of Agca’s accusation, the Italian police arrested Antonov, issued a warrant for Vassilev and officially implicated Aivazov. Antonov is being held in Rome, but the other Bulgarians are now safely in Sofia.

As interest in the “Bulgarian connection” mounted, a second link hit the headlines. Newspapers had previously reported that Luigi Scricciolo, a former union official who was arrested in February and charged with assisting the terrorist Red Brigades, had been in contact with Bulgarian agents. Justice Minister Clelio Darida gave substance to that rumor last week when he accused Scricciolo of spying for Bulgaria “to procure with espionage aims political and military information on NATO.” He further charged that Scricciolo had “aimed to establish a collaboration between Bulgaria and the Red Brigades,” no tably in the kidnaping of U.S. General James Dozier, who was rescued last January after being held captive for 42 days. Darida based his accusation in part on clandestine radio transmissions from Bulgaria to Italy that had been intercepted by Italian authorities. He also raised the total number of Bulgarians accused of subversion in Italy to five, naming two additional former embassy employees whom Scricciolo identified in a confession as his contacts. Their present whereabouts are unknown.

Now, however, a third case may yield the most decisive evidence to date of the Bulgarian connection. Four date of the Bulgarian connection. Four weeks ago, police in the northern Italian town of Trento cracked a drug-and arms-smuggling ring allegedly headed by Henri Arsan, a Syrian. Arsan’s contacts, Lagorio told Parliament, definitely included Bulgarians, thereby offering possible proof that the ring represented a third tie between Bulgaria and subversion in Italy. Two days later, in an even more startling development, Trento Magistrate Carlo Palermo announced that Çelenk was being charged with complicity in the Trento ring. For the first time, the three separate trails leading from Italy to Bulgaria had met. Çelenk’s testimony will be essential in proving the connection, but it may be impossible to obtain. He was, in the words of Bulgarian authorities, “under the control” of the police in Sofia. In Sofia, Çelenk said, “I have nothing to do with this odious crime. I am an honest businessman.”

British intelligence officials remain skeptical about the Italian case, privately expressing doubts about the efficiency of Italy’s secret service. West Germans note that any such Vatican operation would have been unusually sloppy, since the alleged agents would have been left in Rome for more than a year after the crime. Says a government spokesman: “It’s just too unprofessional for the KGB.” Some Italians think their government went too far. The ruling Christian Democratic Party’s newspaper II Popolo accused Defense Minister Lagorio, who is a Socialist, of “manipulating” the evidence against Bulgaria for internal partisan purposes.

U.S. intelligence officials are not so sure. Says one: “The circumstantial evidence seems overwhelming.” The Reagan Administration remains divided on how to deal with any question of on how to deal with any question of Soviet complicity in the papal plot. Officials fear that U.S. accusations would not be credible to Western Europe’s influential peace movement, and therefore prefer to let the burden of proof rest with European governments. Says a senior official: “We should sit back and enjoy it.” Washington intelligence sources told TIME that two weeks ago Soviet diplomats approached officials of the French Communist Party to find a lawyer for Antonov. Says one: “I don’t think they are doing this because they feel sorry for him.”

As Italian outrage mounted, the Bulgarians invited Western reporters to a dramatic press conference in Sofia, at which they produced the two Bulgarian embassy officials not in Italian custody, as well as Antonov’s wife Rosica. A Bulgarian spokesman denounced the Italian accusations as “an international provocation,” while Rosica, in tears, denied Antonov’s involvement “with such inhuman acts.” Bulgaria invited Italian Magistrate Ilario Maftella, who is investigating the papal Maftella, who is investigating the papal plot, to come to Sofia to interview the suspects personally.

Bulgarian agents have engaged in a number of dubious activities on behalf of the Soviet Union throughout the world. For years Western intelligence experts have believed that Bulgaria shipped millions of dollars worth of arms to right-wing terrorists in Turkey, helping create the anarchy that almost toppled the Turkish government in 1979. According to Israeli intelligence officials, more than 1,000 Palestinian terrorists have been trained in Bulgarian camps over the past decade, and all the heavy armaments used by the P.L.O. in Lebanon were shipped from the Black Sea port of Varna. Nicaragua’s former Ambassador to the U.S. Francisco Fiallos Navarro last week revealed that Bulgarian advisers “have a very important role in economic planning in Nicaragua.”

At every level, ties between the Soviet Union and Bulgaria are close, partly reflecting Bulgaria’s longstanding gratitude for Russian help in expelling Turkish occupiers in 1878. Most Western intelligence officials agree that on international missions at least, the Bulgarians act only on direct orders from Moscow. The relationship between the KGB and its Bulgarian counterpart, says Stefan Sverdlev, a defector who was a colonel in the Bulgarian secret service until 1971, “is like that between master and slave.” True as that may be, it does not constitute any proof of Soviet involvement in the Pope’s shooting. Indeed, Bulgarian involvement has not been proved, but Italian authorities plainly feel their case is strong. —By Kenneth W. Banta. Reported by Gregory H. Wierzynski/Washington and Wilton Wynn/Rome, with otherbureaus

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