Bulgaria Charges 3 Russian Agents in Poisoning Case
Prosecutors in Bulgaria announced criminal charges on Thursday against three Russian spies from a secretive assassination unit for the 2015 poisoning of a prominent Bulgarian arms manufacturer.
The three men slipped into the country using fake passports and, according to prosecutors, used an organophosphate poison in an attempt “to deliberately kill” the arms manufacturer, Emilian Gebrev, along with his son and a top executive in his company.
Though the victims survived, the poisoning in central Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, endangered the lives of numerous people, the Prosecutor General’s office said in a statement.
Prosecutors released few details about the Russian spies on Thursday. But an investigation published in The New York Times last month identified them as operatives from Unit 29155, an elite group within Russia’s military intelligence agency that carries out assassinations and disruption operations in Europe.
Members of the unit have also been involved in an attempted coup in Montenegro and an operation in Moldova, as well as the poisoning in 2018 of a former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, in the English town of Salisbury.
The Skripal poisoning touched off a geopolitical showdown between Russia and the West that continues to reverberate. In response, more than 120 Russian diplomats were expelled from the European Union and the United States, and Britain filed criminal charges against two operatives later identified as officers with Unit 29155.
Bulgaria had initially been reluctant to confront Russia, though experts and officials say Russian spies often use Bulgaria as a staging ground for operations throughout Europe. The Bulgarian government declined to expel any diplomats in the wake of the Skripal poisoning and had closed the inquiry into the Gebrev poisoning years earlier because of a lack of evidence.
But after the British presented evidence of Unit 29155’s activities on Bulgarian soil, the authorities there reopened the case.
The Times identified six operatives from Unit 29155 who appear to have been involved in the operation to kill Mr. Gebrev and the others. The three charged on Thursday arrived in Bulgaria shortly before Mr. Gebrev fell ill at a dinner with business partners in late April 2015.
Though the men were not named by prosecutors, using travel information, The Times was able to identify them by their aliases: Sergei Fedotov, Sergei Pavlov and Georgi Gorshkov. (The operatives using the names Fedotov and Pavlov were also involved in overseeing and planning the Skripal poisoning, according to European security officials.)
In Sofia, the operatives checked into a hotel near Mr. Gebrev’s offices and insisted on rooms with windows facing the entrance of an underground parking garage, investigators said. One of the men then slipped into the garage, and, according to grainy surveillance video, appears to smear a substance on the door handles of cars belonging to the victims.
That was just the first poisoning. Investigators say that after failing to kill Mr. Gebrev and the others, Mr. Fedotov and another operative returned a month later and poisoned him and his son again while they were convalescing at their home on the Black Sea. Again, they failed to kill their victims, though Mr. Gebrev says his business continues to suffer.
In the statement on Thursday, the Prosecutor General’s office said European arrest warrants and Interpol red notices — requests that other countries arrest suspects — had been filed for the three men involved in the first poisoning. It is not clear whether investigators plan to charge the other men involved in the operation.
Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though in the past he has dismissed reporting on Unit 29155 as “pulp fiction.”
At times, though, Mr. Putin, who signed a law in 2006 allowing Russian operatives to carry out assassinations abroad, has been less equivocal. When asked last month about Russian involvement in the assassination of a former Chechen rebel commander in Berlin last year, he pointedly declined to deny it, calling the victim “an absolutely bloodthirsty murderer.”
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