Burgas, the quiet town on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast used mainly by holidaymakers as a gateway to the summer pleasures of Sunny Beach and Sozopol, is popular with Bulgarians and expats alike, but its name hardly rang a bell to anyone in the outside world who hadn't visited or had family contacts there. Suddenly, in the middle of July, the town became headline news across the globe as the site of the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe of the 2010s, in fact the deadliest since Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.
But to think that what happened in Burgas on 18 July 2012 was in any way "unprecedented" or "without parallel in living memory" would be to overlook a number of similar incidents that, albeit not as deadly as the recent one, have marred what the residents of Burgas like to think of as a town of "poets, painters and jovial merrymakers."
For reasons that probably can only be partially explained, Burgas seems to have become a favoured spot for terrorists of many different shades and hues to conduct their activities during the past 50-60 years. One of the earliest Burgas-related terror incidents did not technically take place in Burgas itself, but the aircraft which was targeted originated at Burgas Airport. In 1948, shortly after the Communist takeover of Bulgaria, a Junkers-52 passenger aircraft took off on a scheduled service to Sofia. One of the passengers was Strashimir Mihalakev, a former air cadet who had just been fired from his post as the Kingdom of Bulgaria's military attache to Romania. Somewhere over Yambol, 100 kilometres west of Burgas, Mihalakev shot dead the pilot and the radio operator. He then diverted the plane to Turkey, where he requested political asylum.
18 July 2012 at Burgas Airport. Five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian Muslim bus driver were killed in a terrorist attack
A few days later Turkey delivered the bodies of the two victims to the Bulgarian authorities, in the region of the border town of Svilengrad.
It emerged later that Mihalakev was just one of seven conspirators onboard the plane who wanted to escape from the Communist regime to Turkey.
The incident was censored in the government-controlled media, as were all other acts of terrorism in the ensuing 45 years.
On 24 May 1981, a major holiday in Bulgaria that celebrates the invention of the Bulgarian alphabet by two Greek monks, Cyril and Methodius, a Turkish DC-9 with 112 passengers and eight crew onboard made an emergency landing at Burgas Airport. It had been hijacked from its scheduled domestic service in Turkey by four armed men opposed to the military regime in Ankara at the time. The men obviously chose Bulgaria because the Communist regime in Sofia had become increasingly antipathetic to US ally and NATO member Turkey. Burgas seemed like a good location owing to its geographical proximity to the Turkish border.
The four men demanded the release from Turkish prisons of 47 of their comrades, as well as $500,000 in cash. Unless their demands were fulfilled, the terrorists said they would shoot each passenger onboard the plane, starting with several US citizens, and then blow up the aircraft on the tarmac.
Turkey refused, and sent an emergency counterterrorist squad to Burgas.
Hijacked Turkish passenger jet on the tarmac of Burgas Airport, 1981
After about 30 hours of the largest hostage crisis on Bulgarian soil, some of the passengers on the plane tried to overpower the terrorists. Shots were heard coming from the aircraft and Bulgarian and Turkish counterterrorist troops stormed the plane. One of the terrorists was shot dead and the other three were tried in Bulgaria and received three-year sentences.
On 9 September 1982, then Bulgaria's national holiday commemorating the Communist takeover after the Second World War, a junior Turkish diplomat at the Turkish Consulate in Burgas, Zyulkan Bora, was shot dead outside his home. The perpetrators were thought to belong to a then active Armenian international terrorist group calling itself Asala. The Asala attackers left a note claiming responsibility for the assassination and demanding recognition of the "Armenian genocide."
This incident was thought to be part of a series of worldwide attacks on Turkish diplomats committed by disenchanted Armenians, mainly based in Western Europe. The actual assassin was never arrested, and the Communist-era State Security in Bulgaria described the incident as "anti-Bulgarian, anti-Soviet and anti-Socialist." Various rumours were put in circulation that the assassination had actually been perpetrated by Greeks, Cypriots, Lebanese or Pakistanis.
In October 1982 a charter service from Burgas to Warsaw was hijacked by a man who took a member of the cabin crew hostage. The man, a Pole, demanded the plane land in Vienna, and held a razor blade pressed to the female flight attendant's throat throughout the flight. The plane landed in Vienna, where the Pole requested political asylum.
In 1991, two years after the collapse of Communism, a Russian Aeroflot passenger aircraft on a scheduled Grozny-Odessa flight landed at Burgas Airport. The plane had been hijacked by a Russian, Genadiy Gan, who demanded political asylum in Turkey. The Turkish authorities, however, refused the plane permission to land and it had to put down at Burgas, the nearest airport to Istanbul.
As the plane approached Burgas, the hijacker was led to believe he was landing in Turkey. Upon arrival, he disembarked and the object taped to his hand, which he had claimed was a bomb, turned out to be a bottle of Russian perfume.
Curiously, in addition to package tourists from the former East bloc, the major resort of Sunny Beach near Burgas was used as the playground of various terror-related individuals in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1977 three women and a man sunbathing on the beach were spotted, quite by chance, by a West German intelligence official who also happened to be holidaying there as well. The man turned out to be Till Meyer, an international terrorist, and one of the women was identified as Gabrielle Krocher-Tiedemann, a sociology student sentenced in 1973 for three assassination attempts and a bank robbery. Both belonged to the Movement 2 June, an extremist organisation allied to the Red Army Faction, probably West Germany's most notorious terrorist group. Fearing an international scandal, the Bulgarian authorities assisted their deportation.
In the 1980s Sunny Beach was also the "respite" location for Bekir Celenk, a shady Turkish arms dealer who was obviously under the protection of the Bulgarian Communist government. Celenk's name emerged in the news after a Turkish terrorist, Mehmed Ali Agca, shot at Pope John Paul II in Rome, in 1982. It was established that the two had known each other and had met repeatedly in Sofia.
Celenk, who had been on the Interpol wanted list, stayed in Sofia and at Sunny Beach, where he was seen imbibing large amounts of whisky at the then Bar Variety, possibly at the expense of the Bulgarian secret services. He was subsequently sent to Turkey, but died, allegedly of a heart attack, before he could be interrogated by the Turkish authorities.