World News

Cyprus court finds Hezbollah member guilty in Israeli plot

NICOSIA (Reuters) - A court in Cyprus on Thursday convicted a Hezbollah member of plotting against Israeli interests on the island in a verdict likely to increase pressure on the European Union to declare the Lebanese group a terrorist organization.

Hossam Taleb Yaccoub was arrested in the Cypriot port city of Limassol last year, two weeks before a suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in July, an attack Sofia blamed on Hezbollah. The group denies involvement.

Yaccoub was found guilty on five of eight counts, including that of participating in a criminal organization, two of agreeing to commit a crime and of legalizing revenue from ill-gotten gains by a criminal organization.

Yaccoub, 24 when arrested, was accused by prosecutors of tracking movements of Israeli tourists on Cyprus, a popular holiday destination. That included noting arrival times of Israeli flights and registration numbers of buses taking them to hotels.

“Any rational explanation which could render these actions innocent is lacking,” the three-bench Criminal Court convening in Limassol said in its verdict, according to the semi-official Cyprus News Agency.

Yaccoub had pleaded not guilty to all charges. He admitted he was a member of Hezbollah who would carry out innocent errands for a handler code-named Ayman, whom he could not fully identify because he was always wearing a hood.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department applauded the conviction.

“Today’s verdict underscores the need for our European allies - and other governments around the world - to crack down on this deadly group,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

The EU has resisted pressure from the United States and Israel to blacklist Hezbollah, arguing this could destabilize Lebanon’s fragile government and add to regional instability.

Officially EU member Cyprus, which neighbors Lebanon, does not consider the Shi’ite Islamist group terrorist.

Hezbollah, a powerful faction in the Beirut government, says accusations against it are part of an Israeli smear campaign.

The court will hear mitigation pleas on March 28. Three of the five charges carry maximum sentences of 14 years in jail and the others up to three years, the news agency said.

Editing by Alistair Lyon