by Jonathan Petre IN WHAT is seen as a surprising diplomatic move, Pope John Paul last week met with top Bulgarian officials in the Vatican, including the deputy Foreign Minister.
The meeting came just hours before the Bulgarian government launched an attack on the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which it accused of having influenced the decision by Italian authorities to arrest Sergei Antonov, the Bulgarian Air Line official, for complicity in the 1981 plot to kill the Pope.
The Bulgarian diplomats, deputy Foreign Minister Liuben Gozev and the charge d'affaires of the Bulgarian embassy in Rome Ludmil Popov, were part of a 12-member delegation which included priests of the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Bulgaria. The audience, held on Tuesday, was in conjunction with religious and cultural celebrations in Bulgaria.
Neither the Vatican nor the Bulgarian embassy released details about topics discussed, but it is thought that a political
solution to the Italian case against Antonov might have been proposed by the Bulgarians. Sources at the embassy said that the meeting was "cordial and open and dedicated to numerous problems."
The Bulgarian government's attack on the CIA came on Friday. Mr Boyan Traykov, head of the official Bulgarian news agency. said he thought that the CIA had orchestrated a smear campaign against Bulgaria, but was now attempting to distance itself from the affair before "the socalled Bulgarian connection becomes a purely Italian scandal for lack of evidence."
Mr Traykov was referring to recent statements made by Mr. William Clark, President Reagan's national security adviser, and Mr William Casey, head of the CIA, which express doubts about the inquiry.
It is not the first time that the Bulgarians have tried to pin the blame on the United States; only recently they claimed that the Americans engineered the election of the present Pope. Mr Traykov, in a press conference attended by a number of Polish and East European journalists, said there appeared to be three reasons why the West should want to accuse Bulgaria for the assassination attempt.
First, he said, Western secret services were trying to distract attention from the placing of American missiles in Europe. Second, it was part of the broader campaign against socialism launched by President Reagan. And third, it was an attempt to destabilise Poland and "create negative feelings in certain parts of the Polish nation against friendly socialist nations."
There are signs that the Soviet government are angry with the Bulgarians for the way they have handled Italian allegations that the Bulgarian secret service was involved in the assassination attempt by hiring the Turk Mehmet All Agca and providing him with a gun.
Soviet displeasure was apparent earlier this month when it was announced that KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov was to make a rare visit to Bulgaria to discuss the situation.
There was also a report that the Bulgarian leader, Todor Zhivkov, had been harshly reprimanded by Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader.
Mr Clark and Mr Casey, while no longer inclined to
believe in a Bulgarian connection, are still supporting the Italian inquiry for evidence that could link Agca with Bulgarian or Soviet intelligence organisations.
The Italian authorities have now constructed a photo montage of St Peter's Square to aid the identification of nearly everyone present during the shooting.
Also, a West German television programme reported
recently that a man
photographed fleeing the square after the shooting, apparently carrying a gun, has been
identified as Oral Celik, a Turk, who is reportedly -living in
Bulgaria. So far, the programme said, Italian attempts to extradite Celik have failed.
The Pope's audience with the Bulgarians is the first since 1979 and was closely linked with celebrations in Bulgaria for Sts Cyril and Methodius, patron saints of Europe, who brought Christianity to the Slavic people