U.S. soldiers mistakenly stormed a factory that makes vegetable oil equipment in Bulgaria during a training exercise last month in an incident that has led to criticism from America's Eastern European ally and a lawsuit from the factory's owner.
But there were Bulgarian civilians “operating a private business” in the building, it said, adding that no weapons were fired at any time during the interaction.
The soldiers had simulated seizing and securing a decommissioned airfield in the town of Cheshnegirovo as part of the exercise, the statement said.
“We sincerely apologize to the business and its employees,” it added. “We always learn from these exercises and are fully investigating the cause of this mistake.”
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The statement did not identify the company, but The Associated Press released surveillance video shared by KIM Engineering Ltd. that showed soldiers in camouflage roaming through a factory-like facility with guns drawn.
KIM Engineering makes vegetable oil refinement equipment, according to its website, and is based next to the Cheshnegirovo airfield.
Company owner Marin Dimitrov has filed suit, according to the A.P., calling the raid “an illegal invasion of private property,” saying he was offended and humiliated.
“It is as if we are bandits, criminals, even though we are carrying out normal activities,” Dimitrov added.
"Seven armed soldiers enter, aiming their weapons at the workers,” Dimitrov told the A.P. “The cameras show that the worker raises his hands, they said in English to sit down, of course my people obey, they are very scared.”
NBC News has reached out to Dimitrov for comment.
The incident also prompted indignation from Bulgarian President Rumen Radev.
Bulgarian TV channel NOVA quoted Radev as saying Monday it was “absolutely unacceptable to have the life and calm of Bulgarian citizens put at risk by military units, be they part of the Bulgarian or foreign armed forces.”
Exercises with allies on the territory of Bulgaria should contribute to building security and trust in collective defense, not breed tension, Radev added, according to NOVA. He also called for a thorough investigation and disclosure of the names of the officials responsible for the incident.
NBC News has reached out to Radev’s office and the Bulgarian interior ministry for further comment.
Bulgaria and the United States are NATO allies. The bloc referred NBC News to American authorities for comment as the exercise was U.S.-led.
A former Soviet-satellite state, Bulgaria has been a NATO member since 2004.
A 2020 poll showed that NATO is generally seen in a positive light across the alliance, but positive opinions of NATO are down significantly in Bulgaria over the past decade. In nearly every country surveyed, larger shares support close ties with the U.S. than with Russia, but Bulgaria was one of two exceptions.
However, the U.S. says it has enjoyed a “robust security relationship” with Bulgaria over 15 years. Over the last five years, the State Department said the U.S. has provided more than $160 million in security assistance to Bulgaria.
CORRECTION (June 4, 2021, 7:48 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the nature of the military exercise. It was a U.S.-led exercise involving NATO countries, not a NATO exercise.