SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — A man believed to be the suicide bomber who attacked a bus full of Israeli tourists, killing six others, had attempted to rent a car but was turned down because his ID appeared suspicious, a Bulgarian prosecutor said Friday.
Authorities are looking for clues as to who the suspect was, using his fingerprints, his DNA and his fake Michigan driver’s license. Security camera footage from before the attack showed the suspected bomber wandering in and out of the terminal, wearing a baseball cap over long hair, T-shirt, and plaid shorts, with a bulky backpack believed to contain the bomb.
Israel was quick to blame Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah for the attack and a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Thursday night that Hezbollah was believed to be behind the attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because it was a sensitive intelligence issue.
Prosecutor Kalina Chapkanova said in a TV interview that before the attack that a man believed to be the bomber tried to rent a car in the town of Pomorie, near the site of the bombing. She said the owner of the rental agency described the man as having short hair, and become suspicious of his license and refused to conclude the deal.
Chapkanova quoted the agency owner as saying that the suspect spoke English with a “specific” accent.
“The owner said that the man had a short haircut, while the photo on the license showed a man with long hair,” Chapkanova said. “The owner said that there was nothing suspicious in the behavior of the suspect. He has been very calm and even the failure of the deal did not upset him.”
The victims of the attack included the Bulgarian bus driver and five Israelis, including a pregnant woman. The attack occurred shortly after the Israelis boarded a bus outside the airport in the Black Sea resort town of Burgas, a popular destination for Israeli tourists — particularly for high school graduates before they are drafted into military service. Burgas is about 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of the capital, Sofia.
In a statement late Thursday, the international police agency Interpol announced it was sending a team to help Bulgarian authorities. It said it would be essential to find out whether any of the false documents the bomber carried had been entered into the database of the France-based organization. There are more than 33 million entries in that data base — 2.5 million of them stolen or lost U.S. passports.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the bombing “was carried out by Hezbollah, the long arm of Iran.” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called the accusation “baseless,” saying it was aimed at diverting world attention from Israel’s role in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Israel has attributed a series of attacks on its citizens around the world in recent months to Iran and its Shiite proxies, threatening to escalate a shadow war between the two arch-enemies that has escalated over Israeli allegations that the Iranians are trying to build nuclear weapons.
Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said the backpack contained the bomb, which detonated in the luggage compartment of the bus. The bomber was believed to have been about 36 years old and had been in the country between four and seven days, Tsvetanov said without elaborating.
Officials were using DNA samples to try to establish his identity. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov told reporters that a Michigan driver’s license was retrieved, but U.S. officials said there was “no such person in their database.” Michigan is home to one of the largest Arab communities in the U.S.
Bulgarian television aired footage of the license showing the name of Jacque Felipe Martin with an address in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Michigan officials said they told the FBI that no one by that name had a valid Michigan license and that out-of-state residents cannot be issued one anyway.
On Thursday, Bulgarian authorities rushed 200 police to hotels where about 1,000 Israelis were staying just north of Burgas. A representative of the Ortanna tour company, which books tours from Israel, said about 10,000 Israelis had scheduled vacations in Bulgaria through the firm this summer and about half had canceled after the attack.
A military plane carrying 33 Israelis injured in the bombing arrived Thursday in Israel. At least two critically injured Israelis were sent to Sofia for treatment, according to the head of the Israeli military medical corps, Brig. Gen. Itzik Kreis.
Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, relations with Israel resembled a cold war with both sides warily watching each other and dealing blows through proxies, but with little direct conflict.
That began to change more than two years ago with the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist, whose death Iran claimed was the work of Israeli hit squads. It was the first strike in what has become a suspected shadow war that has now touched three continents.
Last week, Cypriot authorities said they had arrested a 24-year-old man on suspicion of planning terror attacks. Cyprus radio said he was of Lebanese origin and carrying a Swedish passport. Netanyahu blamed Iran for the alleged plot.
Speaking Thursday from his Jerusalem office, Netanyahu said Iran and Hezbollah “attack and murder innocent citizens, families, young ones, children, people who went for an innocent vacation and whose sin is to be Israeli and Jewish.”
He said it is time for the world to accept that “Iran is behind the wave of terror” and is the most “dangerous country in the world.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described Hezbollah as the “director executors” and vowed that Israel “will do all it can to find those responsible and punish them, both those who carried it out directly and those who dispatched them.”
Although Iran denies any role in the Bulgaria blast, Tehran claims Israel’s Mossad spy agency was behind the slayings of at least five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010, as well as other clandestine operations, such as planting powerful computer viruses.
Israel has not directly replied to the Iranian charges. But Israeli leaders have repeatedly said that “all options are on the table” in trying to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program — a phrase that is widely interpreted as meaning the possibility of a military strike and other measures that could include cyberwarfare.
Since the fall of communism, Israel has maintained friendly ties with Bulgaria, a nation of 7.3 million 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.
Adam Goldman in Washington, Elaine Ganley in Paris, Amy Teibel and Aron Heller in Jerusalem, Brian Murphy in the United Arab Emirates and Robert H. Reid in Berlin contributed to this report.
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