Bulgaria suspects 'friendly fire' death in Iraq

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Bulgarian soldier killed last week in southern Iraq was likely shot by coalition forces, the defense minister said Monday, and the president summoned the U.S. ambassador to complain about the lack of coordination among the troops.

“The result (of the investigation) gives us enough grounds to believe the death of Pvt. Gardi Gardev was caused by friendly fire,” Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov told reporters.

Gardev’s death Friday came the same day as U.S. troops mistakenly fired on a vehicle carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, wounding her and killing an Italian intelligence officer who negotiated her release from insurgents.

Svinarov said the incident involving Gardev began when a Bulgarian patrol was approached by a civilian Iraqi car. The vehicle did not stop after the patrol gave a signal, and the servicemen fired warning shots in the air from the north.

Shortly after the warning shots were fired, the patrol “became the target of massive fire from the west,” where a U.S. Army communications site was located about 150 yards away, Svinarov said.

Initial reports had said Gardev was killed in a shootout with insurgents near the central Iraqi city of Diwaniya.

Punishment expected
President Georgi Parvanov summoned U.S. Ambassador James Pardew on Monday and complained about the lack of coordination between coalition troops in Iraq, his press office said.

Parvanov said Bulgaria will investigate the incident and punish those responsible, and said he hoped the United States would act in the same way.

Tech. Sgt. Patrick Murphy, a U.S. military spokesman, said the commanding general of the central-south coalition division had appointed a special commission to investigate.

Svinarov said the Bulgarian army’s chief of staff, Gen. Nikola Kolev, asked Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for an inquiry.

Svinarov added he had insisted “the coalition partners undertake emergency measures to improve coordination at all levels.”

Gardev’s body was flown back to Sofia on Sunday for a funeral Tuesday in his village of Dolno Sahrane, in central Bulgaria. He was the eighth Bulgarian to be killed in Iraq.

Domestic campaign issue
Bulgaria has a 460-member infantry battalion in Diwaniya, serving under Polish command. The troops’ mandate ends in mid-2005.

The deaths have sparked debate on the Balkan country’s military presence in Iraq and helped make it a campaign issue ahead of general elections in June. Opinion polls show a steady majority of Bulgarians oppose its military presence in Iraq.

The government is to decide by next month whether to withdraw troops after their current mission ends in July. The defense minister said Sunday he saw no reason for a pullout.

The opposition Socialist Party, which leads in the polls, has promised a withdrawal if it wins.

Also Monday, the Sofia City Court held the opening hearing in a $200,000 lawsuit against the government filed by parents of another Bulgarian soldier killed in Iraq.

Svilen Kirov was one of five Bulgarian soldiers killed in a bomb attack on their camp in the Iraqi city of Karbala in December 2003. Kirov’s parents argue his unit was not adequately prepared for the dangers of Iraq.