INTERNATIONAL

Russian spy detected in Catalonia accused of poisoning Bulgarian arms dealer

General Denis Sergeev, who is linked to the elite military group Unit 29155, is being investigated by Spain’s High Court for two visits he made to Barcelona ahead of the illegal referendum on Catalan independence

Image of Denis Sergeev in 1999 taken from a documentary on the battle for Alilen.
Image of Denis Sergeev in 1999 taken from a documentary on the battle for Alilen.

The public prosecutor in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia has accused General Denis Sergeev – a Russian spy who traveled to Barcelona two days before the October 1, 2017 unauthorized referendum on Catalan independence – of the attempted murder of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, his son Hristo Gebrev, and an executive of Gebrev’s company Emco Odd, according to intelligence sources consulted by EL PAÍS.

The three victims were poisoned after coming into contact with a chemical agent. Emilian Gebrev suffered hallucinations, vomiting and fell into a coma, remaining in hospital for three weeks. The incident took place in Sofia between April 28 and May 4, 2015, according to sources from Sofia’s public prosecutor.

Gebrev began to feel unwell, four days after Sergeev arrived in Bulgaria

In January this year, the public prosecutor accused three Russian citizens of the attempted murder, but did not reveal their names. A spokesperson from the organization told EL PAÍS that the secrecy was justified given that the country’s laws prohibit information being revealed from an ongoing investigation.

The Sofia public prosecutor subsequently issued three European arrest warrants and international arrest warrants with the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) in an effort to extradite the three accused Russians to Bulgaria, where they are facing charges of premeditated attempted murder.

Spanish police sources maintain that Sergeev is also wanted in at least two other countries where his presence has been detected.

The Sofia public prosecutor began to suspect Sergeev’s involvement in the poisoning after reviewing security camera footage of an underground car park from April 28, 2015. The video, which lasts two minutes, shows a man approaching a vehicle. According to the public prosecutor, “an FBI laboratory was tasked with doing an expert study to identify the person implicated in the crime.”

Security camera footage of the underground car park.

Dressed in a hat and gloves, the figure in the video loiters near the car of one of the victims. Investigators believe that the suspect applied a chemical agent to the vehicle in an effort to kill the arms dealer Emilian Gebrev.

Sergeev uses the false name Sergey Fedotov, and has been connected to dozens of destabilization operations in Europe and Asia. The agent, who is linked to the elite Russian military unit known as “Unit 29155,” is also on the radar of Spanish investigators. Last year, Judge Manuel García-Castellón of Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, opened a sealed probe into the role the spy played while he was in Barcelona. As this newspaper revealed, Sergeev traveled to the Catalan capital on at least two occasions – on November 5, 2016 and on September 29, 2017, just days before the illegal referendum on Catalan independence.

According to the investigative website Bellingcat, with which EL PAÍS collaborates, eight agents from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU, as it is known in Russian by its initials) were involved in the attempted murder of Gebrev, his son and the head of the Emco Odd production department. The Russian spies had traveled to Bulgaria using false names during the period in which the victims were poisoned.

At the end of April, 2015, Sergeev and his colleague Georgy Gorshkov arrived as tourists at a hotel complex in the city of Burgas, on the coast of the Black Sea. Another spy from the unit, Sergey Pavlov, arrived the same day in Sofia.

Four days after the Russians arrived, Gebrev began to feel unwell. The arms dealer initially thought he was suffering from tiredness and the flu, but he then began to feel a burning sensation, dizziness and blurred vision. He was taken to a military hospital in Sofia, where he fell into a coma. His son Hristo and the Emco Odd business executive also fell ill, and were taken to the same hospital, where the three remained for more than three weeks.

A month after being admitted to hospital, Gebrev and his son began having the same symptoms. According to Bellingcat, a urine test revealed that their bodies contained traces of two organophosphates, a toxic substance linked to pesticides.

According to ‘The New York Times,’ Unit 29155 is working to destabilize Europe

Sergeev and Gorshkov left Bulgaria the day after the first poisoning attempt. They flew first to the Istanbul Atatürk Airport in Turkey and then to Moscow. Pavlov returned to the Russian capital on a direct flight.

When former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the United Kingdom with the nerve agent Novichok in March, 2018 – an operation Western intelligence services attribute to Unit 29155 – Gebrev noted similarities between their symptoms and those he had experienced in 2015.

Although Gebrev’s company Emco Odd exported weapons to Georgia during its war with Russia in 2018, the arms dealer told Bellingcat that this was not why he was targeted by the Russian spying unit. According to Gebrev, his company sold less than 10% of all the weapons sold to Georgia by Bulgarian firms.

Another hypothesis from Bellingcat links the attempted poisoning to a power struggle between Bulgarian oligarchs. Gebrev told the investigative journalist network that he did not export weapons to Ukraine, which has been in conflict with Russia since 2014.

Western intelligence services connect 20 agents from Unit 29155 to the assassination of a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin in Berlin in August, 2019. The unit is also linked with the failed coup in Montenegro in 2016, which included a plan to assassinate the prime minister and a destabilization campaign in Moldova.

In October of last year, The New York Times reported that Unit 29155 is part of a hybrid war orchestrated by the Russian government that mixes military confrontation with propaganda, hacking and disinformation. According to the newspaper, the members of the unit are working to destabilize Europe, and are trained in operations of subversion, sabotage and assassination.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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