EU declares Hezbollah's military wing terror group
BRUSSELS — The European Union placed the military wing of the Lebanese party Hezbollah on its terror list on 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 any doubts.
It came after prolonged diplomatic pressure from the United States and Israel, who both consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
"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 individuals belonging to the 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 as 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 be 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.
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 month-long war with Hezbollah in 2006 and does not differentiate between the group's political and military wings. Israel 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.
"Finally, after years of deliberation, the claim that Hezbollah is a legitimate political party has rightfully failed," said Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. "Now it is clear to the entire world that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization."
The group has been accused of involvement in last year's attack in the Black Sea resort of Burgas in Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian. It has refuted that allegation.
Westerwelle said the evidence from the attack on EU member Bulgaria was enough of an impetus for the blacklisting. A Cyprus criminal court decision in March finding a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island also galvanized EU diplomacy.
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 gun battles 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 came to a united stand 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.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut and Ian Deitch from Jerusalem.