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EU under pressure to blacklist Hezbollah

  |   April 1, 2013 at 2:55 PM
NICOSIA, Cyprus, April 1 (UPI) -- France and Germany reportedly are prepared to brand Hezbollah's military arm a terrorist group after the conviction of an operative in Cyprus on terror-related charges heightened U.S. pressure on the European Union to outlaw the Lebanese movement.

The move to single out the group's powerful armed wing is largely symbolic because it leaves Hezbollah's political wing, which with its allies dominated Lebanon's outgoing government able to operate internationally and to receive funds from Europe.

But it would constitute another political setback for Hezbollah at a time when its future is uncertain.

The Shiite Muslim movement faces the loss of a key patron, President Bashar Assad of neighboring Syria, as it comes under growing criticism for fighting to support the Damascus regime against largely Sunni rebel forces.

If Assad falls, Hezbollah loses an important backer and arms supplier and its main supply route with Iran.

The reported move against it by two key EU powers, joining Britain which also differentiates between Hezbollah's military wing and its political arm, is largely seen is a compromise to get the Americans off Europe's back on this highly sensitive issue.

British Mideast analyst Julien Barnes-Darcy says the European Union will follow "the British track ... Because of the reluctance of European states to fully isolate and sanction Hezbollah, that could be a compromise path forward."

European countries fear that an all-encompassing blacklisting of Hezbollah would put those countries at risk of being caught up in the movement's conflict with Israel which the Americans and Israelis say has become global.

Until al-Qaida came along in the late 1990s, Hezbollah was considered the world's leading terrorist organization and had killed more Americans than any other group.

Hezbollah has long insisted that it operated only in the Middle East but it's been accused of several major attacks outside the region, including two bombings against the Israeli embassy and an Israeli-Argentine association in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 that killed 124 people.

More recently, it's also been accused of involvement with Iran of terrorist plots in Thailand, Azerbaijan, Kenya, India and elsewhere. Hezbollah denies that.

The pan-Arab daily Al Hayat quoted French officials as saying Paris is ready to blacklist Hezbollah's armed wing.

That decision was based on the Bulgarian government's announcement Feb. 5 that the group's armed wing, with three operatives using Australian and Canadian passports, was responsible for a July 18, 2012, attack on a bus in the city of Burgas that killed five Israeli tourists and the bomber. Hezbollah denies that.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius discussed the issue with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week, diplomatic sources said.

Meantime, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported the Berlin government wants to increase pressure on the European Union to put Hezbollah on its list of banned organizations.

The Europeans have argued that there's been a serious lack of hard evidence of Hezbollah's involvement in terrorism to justify blacklisting the group.

While Bulgaria has yet to furnish indisputable proof of Hezbollah's involvement in the Burgas attack, the February conviction in Cyprus of a Lebanese-Swedish national for conducting surveillance on Israeli tourists on the east Mediterranean island has added weight to the blacklisting lobby.

Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, 24, was the first Hezbollah member convicted in a European court since Germany convicted two members of a prominent Hezbollah family with terrorist offensives in the early 1990s.

Yaacoub was arrested July 7, 2012, just days before the Bulgaria bombing against Israeli tourists, after the Cypriots were tipped off by an unidentified intelligence service.

Yaacoub, who used the codename Wael, admitted he was a Hezbollah member who was set up in a fruit juice business in the Cypriot port of Limassol, popular with Israeli tourists, to gather information on their activities.

He admitted during his trial that he had carried out six surveillance missions for Hezbollah since 2011 but denied planning to attack Israelis.

He was sentenced to a three-year prison term March 28.

The Burgas and Limassol cases could have major implications for Hezbollah and how the European Union deals with it.

The only European state to brand Hezbollah a terrorist organization in its entirety is the Netherlands.

The United States and Canada have long blacklisted the group, which allows both governments to outlaw Hezbollah activities, freeze its bank accounts and monitor suspected members.

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