(AFP) – Feb 21, 2008
VODEN, Bulgaria (AFP) — Until recently, more than 100 rusty military tanks lay half-buried and almost forgotten in deserted fields near Bulgaria's southeastern border, planted as a Cold War deterrent to NATO's southern flank.
But the theft of a rare vintage model sent the army scurrying this month to start a recovery operation to save those still left from looters.
"Collectors, and especially the fans of the 'Fuehrer' (Hitler) ... are prepared to pay huge sums of money to have one of these," the deputy director of Sofia's military history museum, Blagoy Milenov, told AFP.
Demand was such that a Russian collector even tried to buy one of the museum's own models, a German Panzer IV, offering to pay five million leva (2.5 million euros, 3.6 million dollars), he said.
Most of Bulgaria's tanks, many dating back to World War II, were smelted down.
But the former communist regime, a member of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact, intentionally buried others on the frontier with Turkey, which was a member of the rival North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The tanks acted as a Cold War line of defence should NATO forces attack.
After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, these tanks and their adjacent bunkers were eventually forgotten by the army, but not by the looters. They moved in to strip and sell the guns, hatches, even whole turrets for scrap -- a lucrative business in cash-hungry Bulgaria.
"Bulgaria received some 97 German Panzer IV tanks, about 100 Sturmgeschuetz III assault guns and Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers when it joined the Nazis in World War II," said museum director Milenov.
Nearly half of these, around 40, were buried as defensive positions along the southeast borders, he said.
A second line of more than 100 Soviet-built T-34 tanks was then added following the 1974 Cyprus crisis. This was when an Athens-sponsored attempt to take control of the Mediterranean island led to Turkish intervention and occupation of about one-third of Cyprus.
The mysterious disappearance of a World War II tank from the Lesovo region between October and December 2007 suddenly threw a spotlight on the forgotten wrecks.
Major Geno Kalev, who heads the recovery effort, told AFP the stolen tank was a Jagdpanzer IV L/70 model.
Local villagers nicknamed it "The Queen", saying it had a special plate that identified it as a personal present from Adolf Hitler to the former Bulgarian queen, Joanna.
"Rumor has it that was the only tank that had upholstery inside," Kalev said.
In December, the defence ministry said two Germans and a Bulgarian army officer had been arrested for trying to sell it abroad to collectors, who were apparently ready to pay millions of euros.
But the tank is still missing: investigators suspect it -- or its parts -- have been smuggled to Germany.
The stolen tank was one of about 30 L/70 models remaining worldwide, said Milenov.
But an even rarer tank was recovered this week, according to Major Kalev. The Jagdpanzer IV L/48 model dug out of the field is one of only six of its kind in the world, he said.
So far, 12 tanks have been pulled from the fields since the operation started on Feburary 6. A defence ministry agency is storing them until the army decides their fate.
"We've been promised that we'll be allowed to choose which tanks to take for the military history museum," said Milenov. "And we've also already suggested that the rest can be sold to collectors."
But the army, despite its huge recovery effort, has raised doubts about their real value.
Kalev said all of the tanks recovered so far had already been stripped by looters.
"We started recovering them to save them from the scrap gangs. But what we're finding more resembles just holed-out soup cans," he said.
"My personal opinion is that they're no good for anything," he added, pointing to the rusty hull of a Panzer IV.
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