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Bulgaria: Georgi Markov, Victim Of An Unknown Cold War Assassin

By Richard Cummings

Prague, 18 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- It was 18 years ago, on September 11, 1978, that Bulgarian emigre writer and journalist Georgi Markov died in London at age 49. He was a victim of a political murder. But his killer has never been apprehended.

Markov was an acclaimed novelist and playwright in Bulgaria prior to his defection to the West in 1969. He settled in England and became a broadcast journalist for Radio Free Europe, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and the German international broadcast service, Deutsche Welle.

He had a large listening audience in Bulgaria. He was known for his harsh criticism of the autocratic rule of the communist party and particularly of its leader, Todor Zhivkov. His broadcasts were subsequently seen as providing an inspiration to the nascent dissident movement in Bulgaria.

A Bulgarian investigator established that in June, 1977, Zhivkov told a party Politburo meeting that he wanted Markov silenced. The task was given to Interior Minister Dimiter Stoyanov. He is said to have requested KGB assistance, presumably to avoid possible ties to Bulgaria. Yuri Andropov, chairman of the KGB, reportedly agreed to help, provided that there would be no trace back to the Soviets.

Three attempts to assassinate Markov followed. The first attempt was made in Munich in the spring of 1978 when Markov was visiting friends and colleagues at Radio Free Europe. Someone put a toxin into Markov's drink at a dinner party in his honor. The attempt to kill him failed.

The second assassination effort occurred on the Italian island of Sardinia, where Markov was on summer vacation with his family. It also failed.

The final, and successful, attempt was staged in London on September 7, 1978, Zhivkov's birthday.

Markov worked a double shift at the BBC. After finishing the early morning shift, he went home for rest and lunch. Returning to work by car, he drove to a parking lot on the south side of Waterloo Bridge. It was his habit to take a bus across the half-mile bridge to the BBC headquarters in the Bush House.

Having parked the car, Markov climbed the stairs to the bus stop. As he neared the queue of people waiting for the bus, he experienced a sudden stinging pain in the back of his right thigh. He turned and saw a man bending to pick up a dropped umbrella.

The man was facing away from Markov. He apologized. Markov subsequently remembered that the apology was made in a foreign accent. The man then hailed a taxi and departed. Markov later described him as heavy set and about 40 years old.

Though in pain, Markov boarded the bus to work. But the pain continued. Markov noticed a small blood spot on his jeans. He told colleagues at the BBC what happened and showed one friend a pimple-like red swelling on his thigh. By evening, Markov had developed a high fever.

His wife called a colleague at BBC, who took Markov to a London hospital, where he was treated for an undetermined form of blood poisoning. His condition worsened. He was not responding to doctors' efforts. The next day he went into shock, and after three days of agony he died.

The preliminary diagnosis indicated that the death was caused by "septicemia, a form of blood poisoning caused by bacterial toxins, possibly a result of kidney failure."

Various newspapers in London carried the story of Markov's death as front page news. Scotland Yard began an investigation into the death.

An autopsy was performed at Wandsworth Public Mortuary. The doctors found a tiny metal pinhead in the wound. When they attempted to extract the "pin," a tiny pellet fell on the table. Upon a microscopic examination, it was established that the pellet had minuscule holes.

Further examination of the pellet at the Chemical and Micro-biological Warfare Establishment at Porton Down found that two 0.34 millimeter holes had been drilled in the pellet, producing an X-shaped cavity. The holes were empty.

This prevented investigators from establishing the type of substance that had been used, but was sufficient to determine that Markov had "not died of natural causes." British Anti-Terrorist Squad (BATS), detectives then joined the Scotland Yard investigating team.

After weeks of research and experimentation, in January 1979, a coroner's inquest in London ruled that Markov had been murdered via a poison called ricin. A Scotland Yard detective said the investigation team traveled to France, Italy, Germany, and the United States searching for possible suspects. None was found.

The coroner, Gavin Thurston, ruled that Markov had "been unlawfully killed."

Several years later, two former KGB officers, Oleg Kalugin and Oleg Gordievsky, publicly admitted Soviet complicity in Markov�s murder. Purportedly, the highly-secret KGB laboratory known as the "Chamber" developed the weapon, which was concealed in an U.S.-manufactured umbrella. The biotoxin ricin was impregnated in a wax-coated pellet the size of a pin head.

Ricin reportedly is much more lethal than cobra venom. British scientists later estimated that only about 450 micrograms were used to kill Markov.

The case was dormant until after the fall of the communist government in Bulgaria in1989. Bulgarian and Scotland Yard officials resumed the investigation of the case. But their work was hampered by the lack of documentary evidence. Files on the case in the Bulgarian Interior Ministry were destroyed. And all traces of the crime have been eliminated.

Reportedly, the Bulgarians used a low-level Italian criminal to commit the murder. In 1993, the man was located in Denmark and questioned by Scotland Yard and Bulgarian investigators about his involvement. The questioning was inconclusive and the suspect was said to have fled Denmark. He was then reported to have lived temporarily in Hungary and the Czech Republic. His whereabouts are unknown.

More than a year ago, the British Parliament asked Russia to help in finding KGB agents who might have been involved in or had knowledge of the murder. The request remains unanswered.

Last year, the Bulgarian post-communist government issued a white paper on the State of Bulgaria's Foreign Relations. It blamed the previous government of the now minority Democratic Party for "the self-denigrating confession to crimes . . . and to the concurrent link of the name of Bulgaria with the tragic death of Georgi Markov, without a final and unequivocal explanation of the incident."

The Markov murder case remains officially unsolved.

Richard Cummings, a former director of security for RFE/RL, has followed the Markov case closely.