Bulgaria's 'murder bureau' targetted emigre dissidents

ALEXENIA DIMITROVA

30.07.2010 @ 09:21 CET

SOFIA - Bulgaria's Communist-era security agency, the dreaded Committee for State Security, maintained a top secret unit in charge of kidnapping, discrediting and killing of Bulgarian émigrés around the world long before the notorious assassination of writer Georgi Markov in London in 1978, it can be revealed.

Dissidents targetted by the regime (upper row l to r): Traicho Belopopski, Alexander Iliev, Blago Slavenov (bottom row l to r) Nikola Kostov, Stefan Svardlev, Theodor Dimitrov

The secretive Cold War structure, dubbed "Service 7" was set up in mid-1963 and by 1972 was engaged in at least ten covert operations against Bulgarians who had fled Communism and settled in Italy, Britain, Denmark, West Germany, Turkey, France, Ethiopia, Sweden and Switzerland.

The revelations surfaced after an investigation by 24 Chasa, one of Bulgaria's top-selling dailies, of nearly 5,000 pages of recently declassified archives from the former Communist intelligence service, the First Directorate of the Committee on State Security.

The records, written between 1964 and 1972 and once marked as "top secret" detail operations against people whom the regime saw as its enemies and given code-name such as "The Black", "Lackey", "Traitor", "X", "Hamlet", "Betrayer", "Blind man", "Ox" and "Widower ".

24 Chasa came across the papers by chance in a batch of documents the National Intelligence Service had released under a new law declassifying former State Security archives. The files carried the acronym OM - in Bulgarian "ostri meropriatia", which translates as "sharp measures" in English.

"We need to execute a death sentence. At first glance, it seems a tough and dirty job, but for us it is noble," then interior minister Angel Solakov said on 1 July, 1970 referring to a plan to kill a Bulgarian émigré. "I don't know whether one day we would be asked to liquidate for instance Papandreou. Now we get smaller tasks, but we should gain some experience."

It is unclear to which of the Papandreou political dynasty in Greece he was referring. Andreas Papandreou, father of current Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, at the time was living in exile in Paris as the country when the country was ruled by a military junta and his own father, George Papandreou Sr., a former prime minister, had died in 1968, a year after the army's coup d'etat.

Mr Solakov's comments quoted in one of the reports undermine the idea held until now that the Communist ruling Politburo had only authorised the so-called "sharp measures" after 24 July, 1973, when it approved a secret resolution on the issue, dubbed "B8".

The archives also disprove a 1999 statement by Communist-era intelligence chief General Vlado Todorov that his service had never been involved in killings.

The Service 7 activities were guided by a set of "basic principles", dated 10 March 1964 and approved by then minister of the interior, General Diko Diko. These principles allowed for kidnapping or "eradication". Their targets were identified as "traitors of the motherland, who caused major damage, and develop hostile activity, " according to a document from 1967.

Upon its creation, "Service 7" had only four officers. In a report dated 7 October, 1964, its chief, Colonel Petko Kovachev, called it "our small subdivision" and insisted on more manpower in view of the increasing workload. By 1967, the unit employed 39 agents. In a memo to the State Security chief dated 30 September, 1967, Colonel Kovachev suggested that the work of the unit be discussed at the highest possible level and improved with help from the "Soviet comrades".

This was not the first time when the service sought help from the KGB, the Soviet spy agency. Assistance was sought for also from the other "fraternal special services" of the former eastern bloc. The Bulgarians were interested mostly in methods of work and the latest weapons and poisons – in particular those without taste, colour or odour and with a delayed effect.

The victims were supposed to be put to sleep and poisoned, according to the unit plans and reports from the late 1960s and the early 1970s.

A leading research unit in Bulgaria, including the interior ministry hospital, the Medical Academy Pharmaceutical Faculty - a leading drug manufacturer - and the State Committee on Science and Technology were involved in developing sophisticated poisons.

The killers were sought among regime loyalists. They were specially trained. In one of the documents, among the discussed executioners was one code-named Piccadilly – the alleged murderer of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in London in 1978 – the case known as the "Bulgarian umbrella". He was also involved in an operation in Italy against another Bulgarian émigré.

The first operation of Service 7, dubbed Libretto, was aborted although targeted Blago Slavenov, a prominent Bulgarian émigré organization leader, who had fled to Italy in the late 40's. The plan envisioned that a friend of Mr Slavenov's would ask him to do some translation in a corner somewhere on board a Bulgarian ship in the northern Italian port of Trieste where agents would kidnap him and forcibly bring him back to Sofia.

Mr Slavenov, who died in 1996, caught wind of the trap and rejected the offer, his daughter Elza told 24 Chasa. According to the archives, the operation against him included three collaborators, two Bulgarian intelligence officers and drugs produced with the assistance of the Bulgarian interior ministry hospital.

Although the plan failed, the agents' reports described it as a first and very useful experience. They later sent to Mr Slavenov a female agent, who was supposed to seduce him on a trip to Vienna, but this trap did not succeed either.

Ms Slavenova said her father knew he was being targeted by the Communist regime and was very cautious. He used to go out and come back at different hours, shifted his daily routes and changed several times his locks.

Mr Slavenov returned to Bulgaria only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Despite all the actions against him and all his fears throughout the years, he still very much loved his country and wanted to die there. In 1996, he was buried in his native village not far from Plovdiv, in southern Bulgaria.

Another target, Traicho Belopopski – a former Bulgarian intelligence officer who had escaped to the United Kingdom in the early 60's and had subsequently been sentenced to death by the regime in 1964 - was found alive and well by 24 Chasa in New York in 2006, long before the Service 7 files surfaced.

At the time, Mr Belopopski was afraid to talk. However, in private correspondence, he mentioned that many years ago, his father had visited him in London and brought him a piece of salami. Knowing the methods of his former colleagues, Mr Belopopski tossed the food to a street dog. It immediately died in agony.

Asked about the case, one of the high-ranking ex-intelligence officers, Colonel Dimo Stankov, denied that that an operation had been planned against Mr Belopopsky and that the latter had been sentenced to death.

"We tried to have him back by sending his father and his brother-in-law to persuade him to return, but when they failed, we gave up," Stankov said.

The Service 7 files however confirmed that Mr Belopopski was indeed a target under two code-names "The Black" and "Mavrov". He survived by moving to the United States where he married for a third time. His first wife and daughter, who remained in Bulgaria, never saw him again.

Another target, code-named "Traitor" and "Nick", Colonel Nikola Kostov, was ex-chief of Bulgarian counter-intelligence before Communism. Communist secret services had been seeking for him for 20 years in France and Italy after he fled Bulgaria in the mid-1940s.

Two paid under-cover agents dubbed "Chavdar" and "Journalist" discovered his location in 1973 and "a sharp operation" was promptly ordered, however the report on the operation and Colonel Kostov's personal file of some 1,000 pages appear to have been destroyed. Witnesses in Italy told 24 Chasa that he died there in 1974 – months after the operation against him was launched, according to the archive.

*Alexenia Dimitrova, a 24 Chasa journalist, has recently published The Murder Bureau, a book describing a total of ten cases of covert foreign operations of the Bulgarian Communist-era secret services against dissident émigrés.

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