Bulgaria back in line with EU on Hezbollah bomb link: diplomats

SOFIA Thu Jun 20, 2013 9:23am EDT

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SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria will not impede a push to put Hezbollah's armed wing on the European Union's terrorism blacklist because the new government, after wavering on the issue, has now decided to fall into line with its fellow EU members, diplomats said.

A Black Sea state of 7 million people, Bulgaria was thrust to the front of Middle Eastern diplomacy when the previous government blamed Hezbollah for a bombing that killed five Israeli tourists and a driver in a Bulgarian resort last year.

The accusation played a central part in a Western diplomatic push to blacklist the Lebanon-based group, an effort which has acquired new urgency since its fighters started helping government forces in Syria's civil war.

Bulgaria alarmed many of its EU partners this month when Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin, from the new Socialist government, backed away from that stance and questioned whether there was enough proof of Hezbollah's role.

However, since then Bulgaria has been lobbied by other EU states and has decided to change direction again, according to two Western diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It seems that the new government has been testing its limits and has tried to see how far it may go, but once they got a reaction they quickly stepped back," one diplomat said.

The second diplomat said: "Vigenin has now stated publicly that the position of Bulgaria is unchanged. I believe the government will stick to this position."

Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the bus bombing.

FINE BALANCE

Blacklisting the group - a step that would freeze its assets in Europe and prevent it from raising funds there - would mark an about-turn for the EU, which has long resisted pressure from Washington and Israel to do so.

The debate within the bloc is finely balanced, with some members concerned about the risk of further fuelling tensions in the Middle East. Diplomats say a majority of the 27 states back a British push to put Hezbollah on the list, but unanimity is needed for a decision.

At a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, Britain failed to win over skeptical delegates, and may now escalate the issue to a higher level, diplomats said.

Officials in the Bulgarian government have rejected suggestions that they made any U-turns over Hezbollah. The foreign ministry said the minister would not speak to Reuters about the issue.

In a statement sent to Reuters on Wednesday, the ministry said: "Bulgaria is ready to join a consensus decision of the European Union. The responsibility to present a solid foundation for it is a collective one."

The Socialist government, while broadly pro-Western, is traditionally sympathetic towards Russia, and this could have played a part, said a former official with the previous, center-right government.

"The new government do not want to irritate the Russians by showing an active position on Hezbollah," said the source, who did not want to be identified.

Moscow, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has blocked international moves to condemn Hezbollah for getting involved in Syria.

Diplomats say there is no evidence the Kremlin directly influenced the Socialist government's policy on Hezbollah, but Russia is a consideration for all Bulgarian leaders.

Bulgaria imports most of its gas from Russia's Gazprom. Moscow is seeking compensation of about 900 million euros from Bulgaria after it cancelled a new nuclear plant that Russian state firm Atomstroyexport had been contracted to build.

(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Trevelyan)

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