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Let the tanks come: Bulgaria will put what is left of its WW2 'tank collection' in a museum, rather than on auction.

His name is Alexei Petrov. He used to be an officer, now he is a defendant in a case, accused of being part of an "organised crime group" and facing a 15-year sentence. But he's not "that" Alexei Petrov, the one arrested in "Operation Octopus", just a namesake. His alleged crime is stealing a tank.

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If you follow the news closely, you will likely remember the story from two and a half years back, when police arrested two German nationals as they attempted to smuggle out of the country a Panzer IV tank, whose price on the black market can easily exceed 100 000 euro. At that time, Major Alexei Petrov was second-in-command at the military unit in Yambol charged with guarding the precious relics. According to prosecutors, he is also the man that helped the Germans steal the tank.

On that December 2007 day, about 80 Nazi tanks and assault artillery units were still on Bulgaria's border with Turkey, where they had been half-buried as part of the Krali Marko line that was meant to protect Bulgaria from land invasion during the Cold War.

Two months before the group was caught, the legendary Tsaritsa--a Sturmgeschutz III Ausf. G assault artillery gun made in 1943--disappeared from the area near the village of Fakia. The gun is said to have been a personal gift from Hitler to the Bulgarian queen-mother Yoana, hence its name. It is believed that the gun was loaded onto a truck and taken to Germany, where it was sold.

The three men allegedly decided to steal a tank using the same scheme, but the military counterintelligence was tipped off about the deed and arrested Petrov and the two Germans on December 13 2007. They were arrested while a group of Roma workers, hired for 20 leva each, were digging out the Panzer.

The story is curious not only because it is the first larceny of a tank from the Bulgarian army, but also because it set in motion a series of events that prevented the loss of one of Bulgaria's largest military treasures, the so-called tank collection of the Defence Ministry.

Residents in Yambol are convinced that the trio did not act alone and had the protection of someone in the Bulgarian General Staff. If not for that case, the Panzer tanks even now might have been the subject of looting, much to the joy of collectors and scrap buyers. Without meaning to, Petrov and his German "colleagues" made possible saving this piece of Bulgarian history.

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Wheeling and dealing

"If it weren't for the Germans, everything would have gone down very quietly. The tanks would have been written off and sold for scrap, with no one hearing about it," says Kaloyan Matev, who has been researching the history of the World War 2 tanks buried on Bulgaria's border for years.

"What was the exact scheme and who participated, none of that would have been known. Shortly after the scandal, a general left the General Staff. Major Alexei Petrov never received a written order, but he was 100 per cent advised to assist the Germans. He was certainly carrying out a verbal instruction, which can never be proven," Matev said.

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He is certain that other pieces have been stolen too. "Most likely it is not only the Tsaritsa that has been moved out of the country, but we know about that one because of the entire affair," he said.

After the public row broke out, the Defence Ministry realised that it had to take steps to preserve the precious wartime relics. The minister at the time, Ves-selin Bliznakov, ordered all tanks dug out and moved to Yambol, which is where we found them, in the yard of the former pioneer barracks.

The Kapital team is one of the few given permission to see the tanks in person. Until recently, all access to them was strictly forbidden, partially because the old Panzer tanks are still a very tempting morsel for collectors and traders, whose appetites were whetted by the previous Cabinet's decision to put some of the tanks on sale. The scandalous offer was later withdrawn after war veterans protested against it.

The media played a role too, with headlines like "Shady deals prepared for border tanks", persuading the ministry to drop the idea.

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The two-year debate on what to do with the tanks ended in July, when Defence Minister Anyu Angelov ordered the most valuable units to be transferred to the National Military History Museum. For now, however, they would be temporarily given to Yambol city hall, which would pay for the restoration of the tanks, because the ministry does not have the money to do it.

Pensioned monsters

The future museum where the Nazi tanks will be displayed looks more like a scrapyard right now. The once fear-inspiring weapons can only elicit pity now--entirely covered by rust and missing many parts, while some sport gaping holes from where pieces have been cut for scrap. Among the ones affected is an early Panzer IV Ausf. F that watchmen call "the cabrio" because its entire turret has been stolen, most likely to be sold as scrap metal.

In one of the backyards, behind two-meter bushes, the remains of two Gruson fortress guns can be seen. There are very few specimens of that particular weapon left in the world and these two, despite surviving three wars, appear to have lost the battle against corrosion.

Some of the relics have been damaged during the digs because the excavation was carried out in the dead of winter, when the earth was frozen. To that end, 40 sergeants from Sliven were hired, using trailer tractors. "They are called sleds because the tanks were dragged like a sled," military equipment expert Dobromir Dimitrov says.

In the yard of the same Yambol barracks is where you will find the "arrested" tank, which was to be taken out of Bulgaria. It is evidence in the case against the two Germans, a case that is still underway in the Sliven military court.

The fate of the two Germans is no less mysterious than the disappearance of Tsaritsa. A week after their arrest, the two Germans were released on bail, their passports taken away and an interdiction against leaving the country issued. They were last seen in April, in the Toundja hotel in Yambol, where they were to remain during the case hearings. Several days later, however, they were already walking the streets of their native Uttenhoffen and giving interviews to local media, explaining how they managed to cross the border with Greece on foot.

In Yambol, the predominant opinion is that all three will be handed suspended sentences at most. Otherwise, one of them could start talking and make public the names of senior officers in the General Staff involved in the affair.

Ivan Mihalev, Kapital
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Author:Mihalev, Ivan
Publication:The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Geographic Code:4EXBU
Date:Aug 6, 2010
Words:1147
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