SOFIA — Bulgaria's veteran Turkish minority party leader Ahmed Dogan resigned as expected, but not before he foiled a dramatic attack by a man armed with a gas pistol at his party's national conference in Sofia.
Dogan was addressing delegates of his Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party when a tall man in black leapt onto the stage, rushed to his podium and pointed the non-lethal weapon at his head, video footage showed.
Visibly stunned, Dogan flung the attacker's arm away before a shot could be fired. The man tried to point the gun once again but it "seems to have been misfired", according to Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov.
Both men fell to the ground in the ensuing scuffle.
A handful of conference delegates rushed to the stage and severely kicked the assailant.
Television footage showed the young man's bloodied face as police dragged him away.
He was later identified as a 25-year-old ethnic Turk from the eastern city of Burgas, who already had a police record for drugs, robberies and hooliganism.
The man had two knives as well as the gas pistol, police chief Valery Yordanov said.
Experts who later examined the gun confirmed that it was non-lethal. The three bullets loaded in it could not have threatened Dogan's life even if properly fired, Yordanov said, adding that the man would likely face a charge of grave hooliganism rather than attempted manslaughter.
Dogan reappeared in the hall several hours later to a standing ovation from the several thousand delegates.
He announced his resignation, which had been widely expected regardless of the attack.
"This time my decision is categorical!" Dogan said, proposing that his deputy Lyutvi Mestan replace him as head of the MRF party.
Dogan, 58, has led MRF since its formation 23 years ago.
Backed mainly by Bulgaria's 10 percent ethnic Turk minority, the controversial veteran politician has played a key role in Bulgaria's post-communist transition.
Dogan's ability to control his voters ensured the liberal MRF's participation in two successive coalition governments between 2001 and 2009.
The MRF is now in opposition to the right-wing government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
Dogan's interrupted address, read out later in his presence by another MRF member, claimed that a recent "demonisation" of his image was detrimental to the party ahead of general elections in July.
He urged delegates to support Mestan's candidacy and to make "a common effort to change public opinion about the MRF and its leader".
Dogan lashed out at the premier, accusing him of seeking to "replace democracy with dictatorship" by stifling the market economy and controlling the media.
Dogan has prided himself for his role in maintaining Bulgaria's ethnic peace while ethnic conflicts raged in the country's Balkan neighbours in the 1990s.
The Turkish minority, which was subjected to drastic assimilation policies under communism, won key rights under his leadership including free religious expression, political representation in parliament, Turkish classes in schools and Turkish-language news broadcasts on the state television.
Dogan's political versatility and diverse coalitions with conservatives, liberals and socialists (ex-communists) over the years however attracted criticism from all sides, mostly for his authoritarian ways, political arrogance and alleged corruption.
Revelations that he had collaborated with the communist police before turning against the political regime and being imprisoned in 1985 also alienated many of his supporters.