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Bekir Celenk, defendant in papal plot trial, dies of heart attack

ANKARA, Turkey -- Bekir Celenk, the accused 'Bulgarian Connection' in the 1981 shooting of Pope John Paul II, died in prison Monday of an apparent heart attack, state-run Turkish television reported.

He was pronounced dead at 4:30 p.m. on arrival at Gulhane Hospital in Ankara, the television report said.

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Celenk was being held at Ankara's Mamak prison on gun and drug trafficking charges when he died of an apparent heart attack, the report said.

The 50-year-old Celenk, who faced a possible death sentence in Turkey had he been convicted, was accused by Italy of paying about $1.2 million in West German marks to the people who planned the May 13, 1981, attack on Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's square.

Celenk denied the charges.

Mehmet Ali Agca, a right-wing Turkish terrorist serving a life sentence in Italy for shooting and seriously wounding the pope, testified that Celenk was the so-called 'Bulgarian Connection' that linked the plot against the pope through the Bulgarians and on to the Soviet KGB.

Celenk, Agca, four other Turks and three other Bulgarians had been standing trial in Rome on charges of plotting the assassination attempt.

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Italian judicial authorities requested Celenk's extradition to stand trial as a co-conspirator in the Rome trial, a request Turkey refused. But Ankara invited a judicial authorities to come to Turkey to interview Celenk in custody.

After an initial interview, the Italian representative returned to Rome and suggested the entire court be moved to Turkey to hear testimony from Celenk.

Celenk was forcibly repatriated to Turkey last summer from neighboring Bulgaria, where he had lived in exile in Sophia for the previous five years.

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