At least six Israeli tourists were killed in a bomb attack on a bus at a Bulgarian airport on Wednesday and Israel accused Tehran of carrying out the attack, promising a strong response to “Iranian terror”.
Body parts were strewn on the tarmac and mangled metal hung from the bus’s torn-back roof. Its windows were blown out and surrounded by scorch marks, as clouds of dense black smoke billowed above the airport.
“We heard a very strong blast. The bus was full with people and children. Flesh and blood everywhere,” a Bulgarian witness told TV7 television. “I saw another bus catching fire from the one that exploded. It was complete chaos.”
The tourists had arrived on a charter flight from Israel and were on the bus in the car park outside Burgas airport when the blast ripped through the double-decker.
“We sat down and within a few seconds we heard a huge boom and we ran away. We managed to escape through a hole on the bus,” Aviva Malka told Israeli Army Radio from the scene.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov told Reuters by telephone after visiting the scene: “The explosion was caused by a bomb in the bus.”
Bulgarian media reported six people died. Israeli media put the toll at seven.
The Interior Ministry declined to comment on whether it might have been a suicide attack, as some witnesses had speculated, and said it was questioning people who had been close to the blast to get a clearer idea of what happened.
The blast comes on the 18th anniversary of a 1994 bomb attack on the headquarters of Argentina’s main Jewish organisation by an Iranian-backed Hezbollah suicide bomber, which killed 85 people.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran and said Israel would respond.
“All the signs lead to Iran. Only in the past few months we have seen Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Georgia, Kenya, Cyprus and other places,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
“Eighteen years exactly after the blast at the Jewish community centre in Argentina, murderous Iranian terror continues to hit innocent people. This is an Iranian terror attack that is spreading throughout the entire world. Israel will react powerfully against Iranian terror,” he said.
Israeli officials had previously said that Bulgaria, a popular holiday destination for Israeli tourists, was vulnerable to attack by Islamist militants who could infiltrate via nearby Turkey.
The incident was not reported by Iranian media and there was no immediate Iranian reaction to the Israeli accusation.
Israeli diplomats have been targeted in several countries in recent months by bombers who Israel said struck on behalf of Iran.
Although Tehran has denied involvement, some analysts believe it is trying to avenge the assassinations of several scientists from its controversial nuclear programme, which the Iranians have blamed on Israel and its Western allies.
Israel has threatened air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomatic efforts fail to rein in its programme. Israel and Western powers accuse Iran of working towards a nuclear bomb, but Tehran says its research is strictly for peaceful ends.
Bulgaria raised security at all airports, bus and railway stations after the explosion. Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova also raised policing at all public places linked to the Jewish community in Bulgaria’s capital.
The blast damaged several other buses in the car park outside the airport at Burgas, where they were waiting to ferry tourists to resorts along the Black Sea coast. Stunned travellers hugged one another in shock at the carnage and passengers were kept away from the scene with a police cordon.
Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry said six people had been killed, including one who died in hopsital. Thirty-two people were in hospital, three of whom were in intensive care. Israel said seven people had been killed.
Israeli Rabbi Haim Tverdovich based in Burgas told Israeli Channel 2 TV some of the wounded had suffered severe burns.
U.S. President Barack Obama called the attack “completely outrageous”. “The United States will stand with our allies, and provide whatever assistance is necessary to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack,” he said.
Burgas is Bulgaria’s fourth largest city and lies on the Black Sea coast some 60 km (40 miles) from the border with Turkey. It is at the centre of a string of seaside resorts which are popular for their sunshine and low cost compared with many parts of the Mediterranean.
With a population of about 200,000, it is also an important industrial centre and has Bulgaria’s sole oil refinery.
“Such a terrifying act on the territory of a sovereign country, member of the EU, is a provocation to the efforts of the democratic community for achieving world peace,” said Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov.
The chief mufti of Bulgaria’s Muslims, who account for about 10 percent of the Balkan country’s 7.4 million population, also comdemned the attack, as did British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Burgas airport was closed after the incident and flights were redirected to the airport of Varna, police said. Tourists were stranded at the airport as it was checked for other explosive devices, Focus news agency reported.
El Al cancelled its flight from Tel Aviv to Sofia that was due to leave at 1600 GMT a spokeswoman told Reuters. Nothing had been decided about Thursday’s flights.
The Israeli military said it would send an aircraft to Burgas with medical crews to provide assistance to the injured.
“The team will be led by a senior IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) officer, and will include doctors specialising in trauma, orthopedics, intensive care, surgery, burns and paediatrics.