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Prime suspect in Georgi Markov 'umbrella poison' murder tracked down

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Prime suspect in Georgi Markov 'umbrella poison' murder tracked down to Austria

Thirty four years on, the murder of Georgi Markov - the Bulgarian dissident poisoned by the tip of an umbrella in central London - remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Cold War.

By Nick Holdsworth, in Moscow, and Robert Mendick, Chief Reporter

The Telegraph

2:00PM GMT 23 Mar 2013


The writer, who was living in the capital, was assassinated on the orders of the Bulgarian secret service as he waited for a bus on Waterloo Bridge in September 1978.

While his killers have never been found, a suspect in the case has emerged: a spy known in Bulgarian files as Agent Piccadilly.

He was named in Bulgaria eight years ago as Francesco Gullino, a Danish national of Italian origin, who worked for the then Communist regime using his business as an antiques dealer as a cover. Mr Gullino’s whereabouts have remained unknown.

But finally he has been tracked down to an obscure Austrian town where he has admitted working for the Bulgarian secret service, Darzhavna Sigurnost (DS), but denied any involvement in Mr Markov’s murder.

Now that he has been located, Scotland Yard, whose file on the Markov murder remains open, are likely to want to question Mr Gullino.

Now in his 60s, he was traced to his home by a film-maker for a new documentary, entitled: Silenced: Georgi Markov and The Umbrella Murder.

In it, Mr Gullino, asked if he was still in touch with his old Bulgarian secret service handler, replied: “Yes I know him, but this is an intimate question because I was really in that [secret service] branch.”

He was then challenged about his role in the assassination, to which Mr Gullino responded: “I have got nothing to do with this story.

"I’m sorry, I wish I could give you a straight answer but… but think for a moment: If I was, if I were the murderer, you think I should, I just say it? You know my theory about the truth.”

Mr Gullino earns his money as an antiques dealer with a supplementary income from the Danish state pension.

But around 1978, he was paid thousands of pounds by the Bulgarian secret service. Between then and the collapse of Communism in 1990, he received a total of £30,000 from the DS, according to official files.

It is alleged that Mr Gullino was ordered by the DS to live in Copenhagen in 1978 - the year Mr Markov was murdered - and set up an antiques business as a cover.

The assassination of Mr Markov, a constant thorn in the side of Bulgaria’s Communist regime, was one of the most chilling episodes of the Cold War.

He had lived in political exile in London since the late 1960s and was married to Annabel Markova, a novelist who writes under the name Annabel Dilke. The couple had a daughter Alexandra, who was just two when her father, then aged 49, was killed.

Mrs Markova,70, said in the documentary: “I wish, that, when people talk about it in the west, they wouldn't say ‘Oh the guy, that got stuck by an umbrella’, they'd say ‘oh the great writer’, you know. The writer was so brave, that he risked his life to tell the truth, this would be fantastic.”

Mr Markov, who worked for the BBC, was standing on Waterloo Bridge when he felt a sharp pain in thigh. He thought little of it but three days later he was dead. The killer had stabbed him with an umbrella, which had injected under his skin a pellet containing the poison ricin.

Mr Gullino was outed as a suspect by a Bulgarian journalist who had spent six years combing the archives of Bulgaria’s secret service. It was claimed in 2005 that Mr Gullino had entered Britain, driving an Austrian-registered caravan, having been sent to London to 'neutralise’ Mr Markov on the direct orders of the country’s then hardline ruler Todor Zhikov.

Working under the codename Agent Piccadilly, it is alleged that Mr Gullino helped to arrange the assassination before leaving London the day after to travel to Rome, where he met his handler.

In 1993, Mr Gullino was detained in Denmark after a tip off by MI6 and held for questioning for 11 hours by Danish intelligence services before being released due to a lack of evidence.

Klaus Dexel, the investigative journalist who tracked down the suspect, said: “Gullino received £30,000 from the DS between 1978 and 1990 and was frequently invited to security service events in Bulgaria. I think that means he had an important role in this murder but there is no evidence he was trained to be a killer, trained in the 'wet arts’. He is, however, a very well trained xxxx and able to cover his trail.”

Mr Dexel believes another Bulgarian agent, nicknamed The Woodpecker, flew into London the day before the killing and flew out the day after.

“This Woodpecker could have been the murderer, or been used to carry the murder weapon in, or indeed Gullino may have played that role,” Mr Dexel said.

The documentary-makers traced Mr Gullino after months of research in Sofia, Copenhagen, and Budapest – another city with which Mr Gullino has long been associated. He was eventually tracked down to Wels, a town in northern Austria about a two-hour drive from Vienna. City records show that Gullino has a tenancy on a shabby apartment block there.

The two-storey building, situated in a part of the small Austrian town that houses antique yards and warehouses, is a warren of small apartments and corridors.

Mr Markov’s friend and colleague Dimitar Botchev, 68, told The Sunday Telegraph that to see the key suspect in the murder living happily on an Danish state pension in a pretty little town in Austria left him feeling sickened and angry.

He said: “There is plenty of evidence against Gullino; it is clear that his hands are not clean. There is sufficient evidence that he was involved in some way in the murder of Markov. But not a finger has been raised against him.

“Georgi Markov was my best friend. It is very painful that all these years after his death, with all the facts and evidence, we are no closer to solving his murder.”

Sources at Scotland Yard said it was aware of Mr Gullino. A spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that the inquiry remains open and has been a particularly complex investigation.

“We continue to work with the appropriate international authorities to investigate any new information that is passed or made available to police.”

It is thought UK detectives last travelled to Bulgaria about 12 months ago in the hunt for Mr Markov’s killer. Files from the time were largely destroyed making the search more difficult.

Mr Gullino’s role as a DS agent was revealed after the collapse of the Bulgarian communist regime in 1989, when a file was found containing false passports in his name, his agreement work under the codename Piccadilly, as well as receipts for thousands of pounds in cash, dating to the period around September 1978.

The file was one of few to have escaped destruction when the DS incinerated nearly all its files as the Communist regime fell apart.

The film suggests the assassination involved a team of up to five agents, including the driver of a London cab that Scotland Yard was never able to trace.

It also suggests that the KGB were involved in supplying the poison and draws parallels between Mr Markov’s murder and that of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in November 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

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