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Britain tightens ban on Hezbollah

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government has asked parliament to outlaw Hezbollah’s military wing and accused the Iranian-backed Lebanese group of supporting terrorism in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, a government statement said.

A Lebanese Hezbollah supporter holds a poster of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during a celebration in Naqoura village in south Lebanon to mark the release of Nissim Nasser after a six-year jail term in Israel June 1, 2008. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

“This means that it will be a criminal offence to belong to, fundraise and encourage support for the military wing of the organization,” the British home office (interior ministry) said in a statement on Wednesday.

The ban, which needs parliamentary approval, would replace one on Hezbollah’s “external security organization”. The statement said it would not affect the group’s political, social and humanitarian activities.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said he was not surprised by the decision.

“I consider it a natural decision to be issued by a founding bloc of the Zionist entity,” Nasrallah said in a televised press conference in Beirut.

“Every time a decision is issued against resistance movements ... we consider this a medal of honor,” he added.

It was not immediately clear how the amended ban would be implemented. Although the group comprises guerrilla fighters, members of parliament, social, medical and reconstruction workers, it is highly centralized and all members undergo military training.

Hezbollah has never denied helping Palestinian factions but has rarely revealed how. It has not claimed to aid Iraq groups, but Nasrallah in May announced that the group was unequivocally with the “Iraqi resistance”.

“Hezbollah’s military wing is providing active support to militants in Iraq who are responsible for attacks both on coalition forces and on Iraqi civilians, including providing training in the use of deadly roadside bombs,” the home office statement said.

“Hezbollah’s military wing also provides support to Palestinian terrorist groups in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It is because of this support for terrorism in Iraq and Occupied Palestinian Territories that the government has taken this action.”

Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the move may have come at the request of the United States, and reflected suspicions that Iran was using its ally Hezbollah as a proxy against U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.

“The suggestion is the Iranians are using Hezbollah as sub-contractors in Iraq,” he said.

Dodge said the move also reflected London’s unease over both Hezbollah’s international role and its actions in Lebanon, where its fighters humbled the government in May in clashes that pushed the country to the brink of civil war. The crisis was later defused by a Qatari-mediated agreement.

Britain said it continued to urge Hezbollah to abandon its status as an armed group and take part in Lebanese democracy on the same terms as other political parties.

Additional reporting by Beirut bureau; Reporting by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Kate Kelland and Mary Gabriel