Soviets Behind Pope's Shooting, Italy Panel Says

Times Staff Writer

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 week.

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.

Times special correspondent Livia Borghese contributed to this report.

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