Bulgaria suspects Russian role in arms depot blasts and poisoning case

Sofia says explosions destroyed munitions ‘bound for Ukraine and Georgia’

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: YURI Kochetkov/Pool/AFP via Getty

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: YURI Kochetkov/Pool/AFP via Getty

 

Bulgarian prosecutors suspect Russian involvement in a string of arms depot explosions that they say destroyed ammunition bound for Ukraine and Georgia, and are investigating a possible link between the blasts and the poisoning of weapons dealer Emilian Gebrev.

The revelations come just days after the Czech Republic accused Moscow of being behind a deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech arms depot that held materiel belonging to the Bulgarian arms trader. In response Prague told dozens of Russian embassy staff to go home, and Moscow expelled 20 Czech diplomats.

Ties between Russia and Bulgaria have been strained by recent spying and security scandals, and last year Sofia charged three suspected Russian intelligence officers in absentia with the 2015 poisoning of Mr Gebrev, his son and a manager at his Emco arms firm; all three survived the incident, which is being investigated for links to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.

“In the course of the investigation, it was established that six Russian citizens were on the territory of Bulgaria at the time when the explosions occurred and when attempts were made to poison three Bulgarian citizens,” Siyka Mileva, a spokeswoman for the Bulgarian state prosecutor’s office, said on Wednesday.

“As of now, evidence has been gathered that allows us to conclude with a high degree of certainty that the aim of the Russian citizens was to stop the supply of specialised products to Georgia and Ukraine.”

Detonated remotely

Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-led militants in its eastern Donbas region since 2014, and Georgia lost a brief war in 2008 to Russia, which keeps thousands of troops in two separatist-run regions of the Caucasus state.

Ms Mileva said investigators could find no technical cause for the four blasts, which took place in 2011-2020, and concluded that all the explosions had been detonated remotely following fires that could have been started to create a diversion at the arms depots.

Mr Gebrev’s company Emco disputed the prosecutors’ version of events, including their assertion that the weapons were intended for Ukraine and Georgia, and said the new allegations were part of a long-running state cover-up around the explosions.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that “either the Bulgarian side knew nothing about this for the last 10 years and only now – after the Czech Republic suddenly recalled the events of 2014 – decided to outdo the Czechs ... or they knew the whole time what had happened but for some reason didn’t make it public”.

Moscow expelled seven diplomats from Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Wednesday, in a continuing tit-for-tat response to the decision of several EU and Nato states to send home Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague.

The US and Russia expelled 10 of each other’s diplomats this month, but both say presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin could hold a summit this summer.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy also said he hoped to meet Mr Putin soon, and told Italian media in an interview published on Wednesday that the Vatican would be “the ideal place for peace dialogue”.