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Soviets Behind Pope’s Shooting, Italy Panel Says

Law­mak­ers con­clude John Paul II’s stance against com­mu­nism made him a tar­get.

By Tra­cy Wilkin­son

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

A com­mit­tee of Italy’s Par­lia­ment inves­ti­gat­ing the 1981 attempt to
assas­si­nate John Paul II released its con­clu­sion Thurs­day
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, but pin­ning it direct­ly and for­mal­ly on the Sovi­et Union
would be a first.

Sen. Pao­lo Guz­zan­ti, pres­i­dent of the par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee, told
reporters that the Sovi­et mil­i­tary intel­li­gence agency, the
GRU, “took the ini­tia­tive to elim­i­nate” the pope. Accord­ing to
Ital­ian media, the report says the Sovi­ets had decid­ed that 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 of intrigue and decep­tion, 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, includ­ing one that probed the Turk­ish mafia and
anoth­er the pur­port­ed involve­ment of the Bul­gar­i­an secret ser­vice.

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 noto­ri­ous ter­ror­ist held in France since his cap­ture in
Africa in 1994.

The com­mit­tee also used new tech­nol­o­gy to reex­am­ine a pho­to­graph that
the report con­cludes shows Sergei Antonov, a Bul­gar­i­an air­line
exec­u­tive, in St. Peter’s Square near Agca at the time of the
shoot­ing. The man in the pho­to­graph has a heavy mus­tache and is
wear­ing glass­es, as though 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 that it 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, suc­ces­sor to
the Sovi­et-era KGB, said the accu­sa­tion was “com­plete­ly absurd,“
accord­ing to a dis­patch from the Inter­fax news agency quot­ed by
Asso­ci­at­ed Press.

Italy’s find­ings con­sti­tute an impor­tant addi­tion to the his­tor­i­cal
record. But it seemed unlike­ly that the report would have any effect
on inves­ti­ga­tions closed long ago.

The com­mit­tee’s report must be approved by the full Par­lia­ment next

If that hap­pens, it would con­sti­tute the first time an offi­cial body
has placed blame for the assas­si­na­tion attempt on the Sovi­ets.

How­ev­er, 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 probe believed that
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.

“All the judges that we heard from left more ques­tions than
cer­tain­ties,” said Nico­la Bion­do, a com­mit­tee staff researcher.

Guz­zan­ti, a mem­ber of Prime Min­is­ter Sil­vio Berlus­coni’s right-wing
Forza Italia (Go, Italy) par­ty, said he launched the new
inves­ti­ga­tion after John Paul’s last book before his death spoke of
the assas­si­na­tion attempt and his con­vic­tion that some­one beyond Agca
had “mas­ter­mind­ed and com­mis­sioned” the attack.


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