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Bus bombing: Why in Bulgaria, and why look to Iran?

Israel's prime minister accuses Iran of attacking a busload of tourists in Bulgaria, a popular destination for Israelis.

By Andrew MacDowallCorrespondent, Correspondent / July 18, 2012

Smoke rises into the sky after an explosion at Burgas airport, outside the Black Sea city of Burgas, Bulgaria, some 400 kilometers east of the capital, Sofia, on July 18.

Burgasinfo/AP

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Zagreb, Croatia and Tel Aviv

At least seven Israeli tourists were killed and dozens were reported injured in a terrorist bomb attack in Bulgaria today, with Israel immediately placing the blame on Iran.

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The blast targeted buses at the the airport in Burgas, a city on the Black Sea coast and a major entry point for tourists heading to nearby resorts. It remains unclear if the explosion was from a suicide bomber or a bomb placed at the front of one of the buses.

Tourism is a major economic earner for Bulgaria, a country of around 7 million people that drew 8.7 million foreign visitors last year – almost 140,000 of them from Israel. Bulgaria has established a reputation among Israelis as a cheap place to get married and to gamble, according to Bulgarian journalist Petar Karaboev.

Security for Israeli tourists in Bulgaria had been tightened after a reported attempt to bomb a bus carrying Israelis to a ski resort near Sofia was foiled in January. That incident was thought to be linked to the fourth anniversary of the assassination of commander Imad Mughniyeh from the Iranian-allied Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Bulgaria's popularity with Israelis yet relative lack of experience with political violence may explain how the country became a terrorist target. 

“It could have happened anywhere in the world [but] Bulgaria is particularly vulnerable as the police have no anti-terrorism experience,” says Anthony Georgieff, a Bulgarian journalist and the author of a book on Jewish Bulgaria.

Political terrorism is unknown in post-Communist Bulgaria. The last politically-linked bomb attacks were carried out in the mid-1980s during a period of clashes between the Communist regime and the Muslim minority. The government’s attempts to force Bulgarian identity on a Turkish minority led both to an exodus of ethnic Turks from the country and to a number of bombings, most notoriously on a train near Sofia. Bulgarians still debate whether these were the works of Turkish terrorists or agent provocateurs from the shady Committee for State Security.

Bulgaria's minorities

Bulgaria has a substantial Muslim population – around 10 percent of the population according to the2011 census, which may well be an underestimate. But the Muslim population is overwhelmingly moderate. Religious extremism is rare in the Balkans as a whole, despite a history of ethnic conflict overlaid with religious differences. While there have been reports of jihadi cells and even training camps established in Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia, they do not hold sway among the population as a whole – and there have been no such allegations made in Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s tiny Jewish community is extremely well-integrated, says Mr. Georgieff. It officially numbers 5,000 people, but he estimates that 2,000 may be a more accurate number if mixed marriages are taken out of the equation, making them perhaps the smallest recognized ethnic minority in the country.

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