EU declares Hezbollah's military wing terror group
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BRUSSELS — The European Union placed the military wing of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party, on its terror list Monday in a major policy change toward the Middle East.
The EU's 28 foreign ministers reached the decision unanimously at their monthly meeting, swiftly swaying several nations that had expressed opposition by committing to continued political dialogue with Beirut.
The action came after prolonged diplomatic pressure from the United States, the Netherlands and Israel, which consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Britain also pushed for the action, citing a terrorist attack in Bulgaria's Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian. Hezbollah's military wing was accused of involvement, an allegation it denied.
In March a criminal court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island.
Both Bulgaria and Cyprus are EU members.
"The EU has sent a clear message that it stands united against terrorism," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "It shows that no organization can carry out terrorist acts on European soil."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also emphasized European unity. "We will not stand for terror in Europe," he said. "From no one."
The blacklisting entails asset freezes and paves the way for possible travel bans on members of Hezbollah's military wing.
"I'm satisfied that we took this important step today, by dealing with the military wing of Hezbollah, freezing its assets, hindering its fundraising and thereby limiting its capacity to act," said Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans.
But implementation promises to be complicated since officials will have to unravel the links between the different wings within Hezbollah's organizational network and see who could be targeted for belonging to the military wing.
Diplomats late Monday were working on pinpointing the entities and organizations that make up the military wing. Because of this legal uncertainty it was unclear how many assets could be involved, and how many individuals could eventually be targeted.
The Iranian-backed group plays a pivotal role in Lebanese politics, dominating the government since 2011. It has since sent its members to bolster Syria's President Bashar Assad forces in their assault of rebel-held areas.
Lebanon's outgoing prime minister, Najib Mikati, expressed disappointment in the bloc's action, saying: "We wish that the EU countries had conducted a more careful reading of the facts."
Walid Sukariyeh, a pro-Hezbollah legislator who belongs to the group's bloc, said the European decision came as a result of American pressure.
"Europe tried to have an independent stance away from America's diction, but I believe by this stance it has abandoned its independence and the independence of its policy," he said.
"Hezbollah did not carry out any terrorist attacks, neither in Europe nor outside Europe. Hezbollah is a resistance movement that fought to liberate occupied land from the Israeli enemy," Sukariyeh said.
Israel welcomed the European decision. It fought a bitter monthlong war with Hezbollah in 2006, and has accused Hezbollah of carrying out attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets around the world. Hezbollah has denied involvement in some and not commented on others.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the EU ministers for their action, even though he insisted that "as far as Israel is concerned, Hezbollah is one organization without distinctions between its wings."
`'It imposes terror in large parts of Lebanon, has turned them into Iranian protectorates and possesses tens of thousands of rockets," Netanyahu said.
Westerwelle said the evidence from the attack in Bulgaria was enough of an impetus for the blacklisting. Several EU nations have pointed to Hezbollah's involvement in Syria as further reason for the move.
As Hezbollah's hand in the Syrian conflict has become public, Lebanon has seen a spike in Sunni-Shiite tensions that has sparked gunbattles in several cities around the country. Many Lebanese Sunnis support the overwhelmingly Sunni uprising against Assad in Syria, while Shiites generally back Hezbollah and the regime in Damascus.
The EU only made its decision after it became clear that political channels would remain open with all players in Lebanon.
"Designation will do nothing to affect the EU's and the UK's strong relationship with, and support for, Lebanon," Hague said.
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