Mystery blast at arms depot owned by survivor of 'Russian poisoning'

Emilian Gebrev supplied weapons to Ukraine and has faced numerous suspected Russian attacks

Emilian Gebrev, in the orange jacket, is the owner of arms trading company Emco in Bulgaria. AFP
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A weapons dealer who survived a suspected Russian poisoning said one of his arms depots was hit by an explosion in Bulgaria, ringing alarm bells because of a history of mysterious attacks on his business.

Emilian Gebrev, who has a record of supplying arms to Ukraine, said the blast caused an early-morning fire at an ammunition depot on Sunday, where weapons had been deposited due to unpaid orders. No injuries were reported.

“It is not about any human error, because there is no human error,” Bulgarian National Radio quoted Mr Gebrev as saying.

“There are reasonable suggestions of intent, but they can only become reality once the investigative teams come in and check it properly”

It is the latest twist in a complex web of incidents linked to Mr Gebrev in which investigators have joined the dots between alleged Russian plots in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Britain.

Anton Gerashchenko, a senior official at Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, compared Sunday’s explosion to another arms depot blast in the Czech Republic in 2014 and said: “Coincidence?”

Christo Grozev, the head of investigative website Bellingcat, said his team would be monitoring developments because “at this point an accidental explosion is quite unlikely”.

Bulgaria in 2020 charged three Russians operating under false identities with trying to kill Mr Gebrev and two others with a phosphorous-like substance, after inquiries into a possible link with the Sergei Skripal nerve agent attack in Britain.

Like Mr Skripal and his daughter, Mr Gebrev and the two others fell ill after the alleged poisoning in 2015, but survived. Some reports suggested the would-be assassins made a second unsuccessful attempt to kill.

One of the suspects, Sergey Fedotov, was described by Bellingcat as an alias for a high-ranking officer in Russian military intelligence. It was doubtful whether the three suspects would face trial because Russia typically blocks extraditions.

Separately, the Czech Republic, supported by allies including Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, accused Russian intelligence of being behind an explosion at an ammunition depot in Vrbetice in 2014.

Czech prosecutors said that incident too was linked to the Salisbury attack because the two suspects in the Skripal case had been found to have travelled from Russia to the Czech Republic before the 2014 explosion.

Mr Gebrev admitted to The New York Times last year that he had been storing weapons at the Czech depot and that he had signed contracts with Ukrainian companies in late 2014.

Russia retaliated by expelling 18 Czech diplomats in what was described as the biggest bilateral spat between the two countries since the end of Soviet domination in 1989.

Bulgarian prosecutors said last year that they had linked a series of other arms factory explosions around Europe to weapons exports to Georgia and Ukraine, and that at least one of the plants was owned by Mr Gebrev.

They said the suspected Russian involvement meant the explosions were probably meant to stop weapons shipments to Georgia and Ukraine, both ex-Soviet countries subject to unwanted incursions by the Russian military.

Russia has openly sought to obstruct the delivery of western weapons on Ukrainian territory since it launched an all-out invasion in February.

Updated: August 01, 2022, 11:14 AM