Report blames Soviets for attack on pope

March 03, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON | TRACY WILKINSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME -- It has persisted as one of the most mysterious cases of international intrigue in recent times: Who was behind the shooting of the pope?

A committee of Italy's Parliament investigating the 1981 attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II released its conclusion yesterday that "beyond any reasonable doubt" the Soviet Union ordered the attack that seriously wounded the pope as he greeted crowds in St. Peter's Square.

The Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, was long ago condemned in the shooting and served 19 years in jail. But for whom he worked has never been definitely established. His own confessions have been all over the map; he has variously implicated the Soviets, the Bulgarians and others.

Rumors about the intellectual authors of the attack have circulated for years; pinning it directly and formally on the former Soviet Union would be a first.

Sen. Paolo Guzzanti, president of the parliamentary committee, told reporters that the Soviet military secret service, the GRU, "took the initiative to eliminate" the pope. According to Italian media, the report says that the Soviets had decided Pope John Paul, a fervent anti-communist, had become dangerous in his outspoken support for the Solidarity protest movement in his native Poland. Solidarity's activities eventually helped precipitate the fall of communism there in 1989.

In those Cold War years, the shooting of the pope was tangled in a web of secret agents, proxy gunmen and the life-or-death struggle over who would dominate the world.

Committee staff members said the report was based on evidence presented at a host of Italian trials through the years connected with the shooting.

In addition, France's noted anti-terrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, reportedly shared evidence with the Italians that sprang from the prosecution of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, alias Carlos the Jackal, the terrorist.

The committee used new technology to re-examine a photograph that the report concludes shows Sergei Antonov, a Bulgarian airlines executive, in St. Peter's Square near Agca at the time of the shooting. The man in the photograph is wearing a heavy mustache and glasses, as if in disguise.

Antonov was one of several Bulgarians put on trial in 1986 for allegedly orchestrating the shooting; he and the others were acquitted. Placing him at the scene would bolster claims that the Bulgarian secret service hired Agca and was working at the behest of the Soviets, the Italians contend. It has long been theorized that the Bulgarians were acting as agents for the Soviets in a murder plot against the pope.

Reacting to the new Italian report, officials in Moscow and Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, issued strong denials. Boris Labusov, spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, said the accusation was "completely absurd," according to a dispatch from the Interfax news agency, quoted by the Associated Press.

Italy's findings constitute an important addition to the historical record, but it is unlikely that the report will have any impact on investigations closed long ago.

The report must be approved by the full Parliament next week. If that happens, it will constitute the first time an official body has placed blame for the assassination attempt on the Soviets.

A minority report by opposition members of Parliament is expected to be released at the same time that may disagree with some of Guzzanti's findings. Other participants in the investigation felt the information they gathered was less conclusive than Guzzanti indicated, a source on the committee said. Among other things, the committee interviewed prosecutors and judges from earlier cases.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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