A suicide bomber carried out an attack that killed seven people in a bus transporting Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, the interior minister said on Thursday, and Israel said Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants were to blame.
Iran denied it was behind Wednesday’s attack at Burgas airport, a popular gateway for tourists visiting the Black Sea coast.
Video surveillance footage showed the bomber was similar in appearance to tourists arriving at the airport, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said.
The bomber had been circling around a group of buses, which were about to take Israeli tourists to a resort near Burgas, for about an hour before the explosion, the footage showed.
“We have established there was a person who was a suicide bomber in this attack. This person had a fake driving license from the United States, from the state of Michigan,” Tsvetanov told reporters at the airport.
“He looked like anyone else - a normal person with Bermuda shorts and a backpack,” he said.
The bomber was said to be 36 years old and had been in the country for between four and seven days before the attack.
Special forces had managed to obtain DNA samples from the fingers of the bomber and were now checking databases in an attempt to identify him, Tsvetanov said.
The foreign ministry said seven people were killed in the attack, including the Bulgarian bus driver and the bomber. The Israeli foreign ministry confirmed that five Israelis were killed.
The tourists had arrived in Bulgaria on a charter flight from Israel and were on the bus in the airport car park when the blast tore through the vehicle. Body parts were strewn across the ground, mangled metal hung from the double-decker bus’s ripped roof and black smoke billowed over the airport.
On Thursday, the airport in Burgas - a city of 200,000 people at the center of a string of seaside resorts - remained closed and police prevented people from approaching.
Beyond the cordons, about 100 holidaymakers waited for their flights but had been told they would be there until midnight. Officials were setting up portable toilets and tents for stranded travelers and Bulgaria’s parliament opened with a one minute silence in memory of the bombing victims.
“It felt like an earthquake and then I saw flying pieces of meat,” said Georgi Stoev, an airport official. “It was horrible, just like in a horror movie.”
“Yesterday’s attack in Bulgaria was perpetrated by Hezbollah, Iran’s leading terrorist proxy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We will continue to fight against Iranian terror. It will not defeat us. We will act against it with great force.”
Israel however indicated it would not hasten into any open conflict with Iran or Hezbollah.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would “do everything possible in order to find those responsible, and those who dispatched them, and punish them” - language that appeared to suggest covert action against individuals.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev linked the arrest of a foreigner in Cyprus this month on suspicion of plotting an attack on Israeli tourists there with the Bulgaria bombing.
“The suspect who was arrested in Cyprus, in his interrogation, revealed an operational plan that is almost identical to what happened in Bulgaria. He is from Hezbollah ... this is a further indication of Hezbollah and Iran’s direct responsibility,” he told Reuters.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman dismissed Israel’s “baseless accusations” that Tehran was involved in the bombing.
The blast occurred on the 18th anniversary of a bomb attack on Argentina’s main Jewish organization that killed 85 people. Argentina blamed Iran, which denied responsibility.
Medical officials said two badly injured Israeli tourists were taken to hospitals in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. One woman was in intensive care with head and chest injuries and a man was in a critical state with burns covering 55 percent of his body.
About 70 Israeli tourists, including those lightly injured by the blast, left Burgas on a Bulgarian government airplane to Israel, the interior ministry said.
The European Commission and NATO condemned the attack, joining criticism from the United States, Britain, France and Germany, and the mayor of Burgas announced a day of mourning.
Israeli officials had previously said that Bulgaria, a popular destination for Israeli tourists, was vulnerable to attack by Islamist militants, who could infiltrate via Turkey.
Israeli diplomats have been targeted in several countries in recent months by bombers who Israel said struck on behalf of Iran.
Some analysts believe Iran is trying to avenge the assassinations of several scientists from its nuclear program, which Israel and Western powers fear is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.
Iran insists its uranium enrichment work is strictly for peaceful ends. Both Israel and the United States have not ruled out military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Writing by Sam Cage; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood