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Unit 29155: Russian spy detected in Catalonia accused of poisoning Bulgarian arms dealer | International

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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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Apollo Go: The Beijing neighborhood with robotaxis and driverless delivery service | International

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Book a robotaxi on a mobile app and it will pick you up in less than 10 minutes. It’s 2:00pm on a Thursday in Beijing and our ride is going smoothly with no human intervention so far. “Sometimes we have to speed up manually to avoid causing traffic jams. Bicycles and motorcycles often cause traffic congestion because they ignore traffic signals,” says the driver supervising our trip, as the steering wheel magically moves by itself.

The 37-square-mile (60 square kilometers) Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area (BJHAD) is where the country’s first pilot project to use autonomous vehicles on public roads is happening. Located in a secluded district in the southeastern part of the city, BJHAD is the test site for a futuristic plan that envisions turning Beijing into the standard-bearer for artificial intelligence (AI). The Apollo robotaxis manufactured by Baidu and the autonomous delivery vehicles manufactured by JD.com (aka Jingdong) zip around a tranquil utopia that stands in stark contrast to the hectic jungle of downtown traffic.

“[A robotaxi] can handle an average of 15 daily bookings, most of which are trips between a subway stop and an office,” said the cab driver. In November 2021, Baidu and Pony.ai became the first companies authorized to operate a fleet of 100 robotaxis in BJHAD. As of April 2022, humans are no longer required to sit in the driver’s seat of the robotaxi, which is allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 37 miles per hour (60 kph). The service is free for now, although the two companies are commercially licensed.

Baidu, China’s leading search engine, is diversifying its business by commercializing its AI and intelligent transportation technology. Its Apollo Go program is currently operating in seven cities, and the company plans to expand to 65 cities by 2025, and 100 cities by 2030. Unlike the Waymo robotaxis that Google began operating in 2020 in the US, Baidu’s vehicles circulate during the day, enabling them to collect more data.

Although Baidu has topped the list of Chinese companies with the most patents for AI applications over the last four years, e-commerce giant JD.com is the leader in the autonomous delivery vehicle space. In 2016, Jingdong established its headquarters in BJHAD, and its delivery robots now dominate the streets. These vehicles mainly transport orders from the 7FRESH smart supermarket chain operated by JD that combines e-commerce and traditional commerce. “Instead of people going out to buy products, we deliver them,” said Yang Han. Who works in Jingdong’s communications department.

JD’s applies big data analytical methods to the information collected from more than 400 million annual users, and utilizes it to tailor inventories to the specific needs of each 7FRESH physical stores location. The entire 7FRESH inventory is available in the app. The delivery robots, which travel at nine miles per hour (15 kph) and can carry 220-440 pounds (100-200 kilos), deliver orders in less than an hour within a three-mile (five kilometer) range.

JD employees rely on smaller robots to send documents and other items between offices in 10 minutes or less. “They speed up the work and saves us from having to run around from one place to another,” said Yang Han. The robots are able to operate elevators and open doors by themselves as they follow their delivery routes.

The robots can recognize their surroundings and avoid obstacles with a 98% accuracy rate for small objects. Information streams in through cameras and other sensors, while the navigation algorithm pinpoints their location and plans routes. JD’s cloud-based simulation platform accumulates data from every trip to continuously improve the robots’ capabilities.

The Covid pandemic spurred JD to accelerate its autonomous delivery program, enabling it to deploy small and large delivery vehicles to the Chinese cities most affected by the pandemic over the last two and a half years. In early 2020, during the peak of the pandemic in Wuhan, these delivery vehicles traveled a total of 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers) and delivered more than 13,000 packages.

In a country where low unemployment is one of the main pillars of its social stability goals, the move to autonomous vehicles may prove to be risky in the long run. However, Yang Han insists that the objective is to “achieve a synergy between humans and machines… The goal is to take the pressure off delivery drivers and allow them to focus on customer service and vehicle maintenance. The couriers don’t need to transport the goods. Instead, they wait by the curb for the robots to arrive, and then walk the goods to the customer’s door. “

BJHAD is part of the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area, the first place in China specifically geared to AI research. The country aspires to become the world leader in AI by 2030 and to leave the “factory for the world” image behind for good.

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Afghan embassy staff remain in hiding despite being eligible for UK relocation | Global development

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More than 170 people who worked for the British embassy in Kabul remain in hiding in Afghanistan in fear for their lives, almost a year after the Taliban retook the country.

A list of Afghans currently in hiding, seen by the Guardian, shows almost 200 former interpreters, security guards and local staff waiting for a response from the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, the departments responsible for relocating people at risk. All of those on the list are eligible for transfer to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap), intended to bring those formerly employed by the UK government, and their family members, to safety in Britain.

Aarash* was employed by GardaWorld, a security subcontractor for the MoD, and worked at the British embassy for more than 10 years. He and his children have fled their home and live hidden in a basement in a village outside the city, surviving on one meal of boiled rice a day.

“The Taliban, they have access to the details of all the guards and their ID cards,” Aarash said, speaking by secure connection. “Two times, they came to search our house, so we had to escape. They say that we are criminals, that we are not true Muslims, that we worked for foreigners. If they find us, they will kill us – this is for sure.”

In August 2021, as the Taliban took Kabul, Aarash was on a coach with his family, due to be evacuated. A suicide bomb inside the airport forced the bus to turn back. He has been in hiding since.

“Every time we receive a message from the MoD, they say to wait. More than 10 months we are waiting. We hoped the British government would help us but they have done nothing – they have left us alone here to die.”

British and US soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation, Kabul Airport, 21 August 2021
British and US soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation, Kabul Airport, 21 August 2021. Photograph: MoD/AFP/Getty Images

Another man, speaking through a translator, said: “The Taliban came to our house, they broke everything and we had to leave very quickly. Now we are in very bad conditions. Our children cannot go to school, we cannot walk in the streets or go to the market [for food]. Every day, we are at risk. They will come for us and they will kill all of us, including the children. We are in a humanitarian crisis.”

He added: “The British government, they know everything about us. They know we are eligible [to come to the UK] because we worked for them for many years. We did good work for them. We respectfully ask the British government to help us and begin our transfer as soon as possible.”

Sarah Magill, a director of the charity Azadi, said eligible Afghans were in their tens of thousands. “They are scattered in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, in hiding and terrified. We would like more diplomatic energy and investment going into establishing pathways for them, including through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Relying solely on Pakistan, a country in political turmoil, has caused a bottleneck.”

Sara de Jong, co-founder of the Sulha Alliance, which supports Afghans who worked for the British government to resettle in the UK, said: “The Arap team’s slowness and unresponsiveness leaves applicants in limbo, while fearing for their lives. The processing of applications needs to be expedited, and applicants should be given clear timelines, which will also help reduce duplicate applications from Afghans simply desperate to get a response.”

It is the latest criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, with a damning report from the foreign affairs committee in May saying there has been a “total absence of plans to evacuate Afghans who supported the UK mission without being directly employed, which has put lives at risk”.

In response to a written question last week, armed forces minister James Heappey said one Arap case dating from when the scheme opened remains unresolved. He added that it “relates to an individual we have contacted three times, requesting further information relating to their eligibility”.

However, earlier this month, in response to a parliamentary question, Heappey said decisions on only two of the 3,226 Arap applications received since April 2022 had been processed. Heappey told MPs that 9,500 Afghans have been relocated to the UK under Arap but added: “We think we’ve got about the same to go in terms of the number of people who are eligible.”

Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton station in southern England, 24 August 2021.
Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton in southern England, 24 August 2021. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office this month launched an online system, where those eligible can send an “expression of interest” in being transferred to the UK as part of its Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), which is separate to Arap. The ACRS is designed to support those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and members of minority groups based, for example, on ethnicity, religion or sexuality. Former GardaWorld and British Council employees will be considered, but it is not possible to apply for the scheme.

An MoD spokesperson said: “Between April and the beginning of June, 683 eligible Afghan civilians along with their families and dependants were relocated to the UK under Arap.

“In total, the Ministry of Defence has relocated over 9,500 Arap principals and their families since the beginning of the scheme. We know there is still a way to go to bring all those who are eligible to safety in the UK; the government is continuing to work with third countries to facilitate the relocation of those who are eligible under Arap.

“We continue to process applications in the order in which they are received, which has meant that some of the newer applications are still being worked through. We recognise there are too many individuals waiting for an answer, and this is not acceptable. This is why we are putting more resource into a dedicated team for processing Arap applications.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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Ukraine war: Biden pledges more aid for Ukraine at close of ‘transformative’ NATO summit | Spain

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At the close of a NATO summit in Madrid that world leaders have described as “transformative,” US President Joe Biden announced a new $800 million package of military aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems, artillery, ammunition and counter-battery radar.

The announcement came a day after the US leader pledged to boost America’s defense and deterrence capabilities on the European continent. “The US is doing exactly what I said we would do if Putin invaded, enhance our force posture in Europe,” said Biden. “Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance […] but he’s getting exactly what he did not want.”

At the two-day gathering, which brought together around 40 heads of state and government, leaders agreed on long-term support for Ukraine and on a new Strategic Concept, a document that describes how the Alliance will address threats and challenges in its security environment in the coming years.

Both Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored one of the main achievements of the two-day gathering, getting Turkey to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland’s request to join the alliance following decades of non-alignment.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.Valeria Mongelli (Bloomberg)

Formal invitations are being extended, but the process is not over and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned on Thursday that both Nordic countries will have to keep their promises in connection with their stance on Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists. This includes a pledge by Sweden to extradite 73 individuals.

On Tuesday, Stoltenberg had said the goal of the summit was to chart a blueprint for NATO “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world” marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a “fundamental shift” in NATO’s approach to defense.

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