RAF CASERT, The Associated Press
BRUSSELS (AP) — 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close to the group say it is not believed to have significant assets in Europe and that any it did have were probably withdrawn before Monday's decision.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.
"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.
Kerry said the EU move would "have a significant impact on Hezbollah's ability to operate freely in Europe by enabling European law enforcement agencies to crack down on Hezbollah's fundraising, logistical activity, and terrorist plotting on European soil."
Israel also 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 its action, even though he insisted that "as far as Israel is concerned, Hezbollah is one organization without distinctions between its wings."
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.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut and Ian Deitch and Aron Heller from Jerusalem.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.