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EU declares Hezbollah's military wing terror group

By Raf Casert

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 22 2013 4:37 p.m. MDT

In this picture taken on May 22, 2010, a Hezbollah fighter stands behind an empty rocket launcher while explaining to the group various tactics and weapons used against Israeli soldiers on the battlefield, during a trip to Hezbollah strongholds, in Sojod village, southern Lebanon.

Associated Press

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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 the last 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.

"The EU is sending a strong message to Hezbollah that it cannot operate with impunity, and that there are consequences for its actions," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

Britain also had pushed for the EU 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 emphasized European unity. "If you attack one of our European countries, you get an answer from all of us."

The blacklisting entails asset freezes and paves the way for possible travel bans on members of Hezbollah's military wing. The ministers hope it will also curtail fundraising.

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.

Hezbollah, a highly secretive organization, does not talk about its business outside Lebanon.

Analysts and officials close to the group say it is not believed to have significant assets in Europe and that any it did have were probably withdrawn before Monday's decision.

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 on rebel-held areas.

The EU vote triggered concerns in Lebanon that the decision would affect the bloc's funding for the country, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said economic aid would be unaffected.

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."

Even before Monday's decision, aid groups complained that European governments have been reluctant to donate funds to help Lebanon cope with a massive flow of refugees from Syria's civil war because of Hezbollah's dominance in Lebanon's government.

Timor Goksel, a Beirut-based political analyst, called the EU action "a public relations move," but said it could affect Hezbollah in Lebanon by providing "much ammunition to its foes."

Walid Sukariyeh, a pro-Hezbollah legislator who belongs to the group's bloc, said the European decision came as a result of American pressure.

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