Minister: Bulgaria bomb won't stop Israeli travel

July 23, 2012 - 3:40 PM
Mideast Bulgaria Israel Security

FILE - In this Friday, July 20, 2012 file photo, relatives mourn Maor Harush who was killed in a suicide bombing in Bulgaria during his funeral in Acco, Israel. Israel's prime minister said Sunday, July 22, 2012 that his country is on alert for plots to kill more of its citizens overseas, after speculation that last week's deadly bombing of a tour bus in Bulgaria was a rehearsal for a spectacular attack on Israel's Olympics team. (AP Photo/Ahikam Seri)

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — The suicide bombing that killed six people, five of them Israelis, in a Bulgarian seaside resort will not stop Israelis from traveling wherever they wish, a government minister from the Jewish state said Monday during a visit to the eastern European nation.

Like other Israeli leaders, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov also blamed the attack on Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, but Bulgarian officials declined to name any culprits until their investigation was complete.

Misezhnikov first met with representatives of Bulgaria's Jewish community at the Sofia Synagogue during his trip, which came less than a week after the bus bombing in the Black Sea resort town of Burgas. Five vacationing Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed and dozens were wounded in the Wednesday attack.

Bulgaria, a country of 7.3 million, has become a popular travel destination in recent years for Israelis. Last year, it hosted 8.7 million foreign tourists, including 135,000 from Israel, and before the attack, tour operators had expected their number to reach 150,000 this year.

Misezhnikov also said Monday that Bulgarian security had prevented a terrorist attack against Israeli tourists in the country several months ago. His spokesman, Amnon Liberman, later confirmed he had made the comments during the visit, but would not elaborate.

Since last week's attack, Bulgarian media have reported that thousands of Israelis have cancelled bookings or cut short their trips. On one TV station, a representative of the Ortanna tour company said about 10,000 Israelis had scheduled vacations in Bulgaria through the firm this summer but that about half had canceled after the attack.

But Bulgarian officials have downplayed those reports, and Misezhnikov insisted his countrymen would not be scared into isolation.

"After what happened in Burgas, we will continue to travel as tourists — in Israel and in Bulgaria and wherever else we wish," Misezhnikov said. "We will not reward the terrorist act. We will not react to it with fear."

The Israeli minister said his country and Bulgaria "have a common enemy: international terrorism — financed and supported by Iran and other countries connected with Iran. This is the common enemy of all countries which fight for freedom worldwide, and we must confront this enemy together."

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan had arrived in Bulgaria on Monday for "previously scheduled high-level meetings with Bulgarian officials.

" Last week's horrific terrorist attack in Burgas underscores the importance of our strong partnership and continued cooperation on counterterrorism and law enforcement," he said

Camera footage showed the suspected bomber wandering in and out of the bus terminal in Burgas, wearing a baseball cap over long hair, a T-shirt and plaid shorts and carrying a bulky backpack. Authorities have examined his fingerprints, his DNA and his fake Michigan driver's license, and are probing whether or not he had an accomplice.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov said Monday that "until we are through with our investigation we won't be fingering any culprit," referring to reports that Hezbollah was behind the attack.

"Our top priority now is to pinpoint the movements of the presumable suicide bomber to identify all connections which will probably reach out of Bulgaria," he said.

Israel has asked other countries in Europe to increase security in bus parking lots used by Israelis and at airports, and Bulgarian police have responded by stepping up security at their country's airports. Flights arriving from Israel will not be publicly announced, and Israeli passengers will be kept in a separate and secure area.

Since the fall of communism, Israel has maintained friendly ties with Bulgaria, a nation that resisted Nazi demands to deport Jews to death camps in World War II. Many of them migrated to Israel when the communists seized power after the war, and about 5,000 Jews live in Bulgaria today.

"Israeli tourists are important for us, not just for economic reasons, but because for them Bulgaria is like a second home country — they feel good here," Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said after talks with Misezhnikov.

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AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier and Aron Heller from Jerusalem contributed to this report