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Thursday, January 11, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bizarre Murder Case Is Reopened -- Bulgaria To Probe Exile's Slaying

Washington Post

SOFIA, Bulgaria - It was a famous, bizarre Cold War murder: A man walking across a bridge in central London was shot with a poison pellet by someone carrying a black umbrella. Four days later, the man died.

The victim was Bulgarian exile Georgi Markov, a noted novelist and playwright who had criticized in print and on radio the country's leader, Todor Zhivkov.

Yesterday, after 12 years of silence, a senior official of Bulgaria's new reform Communist government told Markov's widow it would open a full investigation into the killing. While the authorities did not comment publicly, many Bulgarians insist there can be only one target of the inquiry: Zhivkov himself, deposed two months ago and now in seclusion in Bulgaria.

Annabel Markov, who traveled here incognito from her native England last Friday, said she was pleased the investigation would take place because it might bring to justice her husband's killers and help clear the way for his work to be published here after a two-decade ban.

But many Bulgarians see the inquiry and the rehabilitation of Georgi Markov's name and works as something even more important: an attempt to reconstruct a missing chapter in Bulgarian history and redeem an important part of its literary culture.

``It was one of the main aims of the regime to make people afraid of everything, even of their own thoughts,'' said Roumen Danov, editor of Otechestvo magazine, which is publishing excerpts from Markov's works this month. ``My prognosis is his books will be the future bible of every Bulgarian family.''

Annabel Markov received the government's pledge of an inquiry during a 30-minute meeting yesterday with Alexander Lilov, a senior Politburo member and one of the leaders of the November coup that ousted Zhivkov.

She said Lilov welcomed her warmly and called himself ``a great admirer of my husband's work. He said he thought it was important not only for an inquiry to take place, but also for Georgi's writings to be published so as to understand 35 years of totalitarianism in Bulgaria.''

Lilov did not make ``a specific admission'' that the old regime had killed her husband, Markov said. ``He said this had been a terrible time for Bulgaria and things had happened which shouldn't have happened,'' she said.

Georgi Markov was one of Bulgaria's foremost intellectuals before his defection to the West in 1969. He had gotten in trouble after catching ``Prague fever'' after the short-lived Czechoslovak reform movement a year before. He wrote a provocative satirical play called ``The Man Who Was I'' that Bulgarian authorities shut down after a required preview by the regime's committee on culture.

Markov and his brother fled to Italy in 1969, and he ended up in London, where he worked for BBC Radio's Bulgarian service and for Radio Free Europe.

He met Annabel Dilke, and they were married in 1975. They have one daughter, Sasha, 13.

Markov's troubles with the regime began again in early 1978 after he began broadcasting over Radio Free Europe chapters from his memoirs. Included were excerpts from his conversations with Zhivkov, who periodically had invited Markov to meet with him. The passages were highly critical and poked fun at the Bulgarian dictator, although Annabel Markov says they were gentle compared to the virulent attacks on Zhivkov now appearing daily in the Bulgarian press.

Revenge came quickly. That January, Markov's brother in Italy was informed by another Bulgarian exile that the Politburo had made a formal decision to kill the author. Specific death threats continued for eight months, including a warning that Markov would be poisoned during a visit to Italy.

``He never believed they would dare risk the scandal by doing such a thing,'' Annabel Markov recalled.

But on Sept. 7 - Zhivkov's birthday - Markov was crossing Waterloo Bridge when, his wife said, ``he felt a prick in his thigh, and there was a man who dropped an umbrella to hide his face.''

Markov, who was 49, lingered for four days and was able to give his wife a full account of the incident. Although press reports at the time claimed he had been stabbed with a poison-tipped umbrella, Markov believed he had been shot by a pellet gun. British investigators determined the pellet contained ricin, a deadly poison, derived from castor bean plants, that agglutinates red blood corpuscles.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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