NEW YORK (AFP)
US authorities on Monday announced the seizure of $150 million allegedly linked to a scheme by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to launder proceeds from drug trafficking and other crimes.
The money came from an American bank account used by the Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB) to conduct US currency transactions, US Attorney Preet Bharara and Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart said.
Washington considers the Shiite militant group a terrorist organization and accuses Syria and Iran of providing its weaponry.
Monday's seizure concerns a December 2011 money laundering and forfeiture complaint filed in US federal court in New York that targeted the bank and two other Lebanese financial institutions with alleged ties to Hezbollah.
"As we alleged last year, the Lebanese Canadian Bank played a key role in facilitating money laundering for Hezbollah controlled organizations across the globe," Leonhart said in a statement.
US prosecutors then alleged that the LCB, the Hassan Ayash Exchange Company and the Ellissa Holding Company wired funds from Lebanon to the United States to buy used cars, which were then sent to West Africa.
"Cash from the sale of the cars, along with proceeds of narcotics trafficking, were then funneled to Lebanon through Hezbollah-controlled money laundering channels," the US Attorney's office said at the time.
Hezbollah refuted the charges, saying they were "another attempt to tarnish the image of the resistance in Lebanon," but US prosecutors said there was no doubt about the institutions' ties to the militant outfit.
"Our relentless pursuit of global criminal networks showed that the US banking system was exploited to launder drug trafficking funds through West Africa and into Lebanon," Leonhart said Monday.
"DEA and our partners are attacking these groups and their financial infrastructure, while establishing clear links between drug trafficking proceeds and terrorist funding," she added.
Bharara said: "Money is the lifeblood of terrorist and narcotics organizations, and while banks which launder money for terrorists and narco-traffickers may be located abroad, today's announcement demonstrates that those banks and their assets are not beyond our reach.
"We will use every resource at our disposal to separate terrorists and narco-traffickers, and the banks that work with them, from their illicit funds, even those hidden in foreign accounts."
The United States earlier this month hit Hezbollah with sanctions as a penalty for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Hezbollah's arsenal makes it the most powerful military force in Lebanon and the issue of its weaponry is considered one of the most destabilizing factors in the country.
Hezbollah considers its weapons to be a legitimate safeguard against Israel, but the Lebanese opposition believes the government, and not a Shiite militia, should be the arbiter of the nation's arms and defense policy.