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Hezbollah-allied group denounces US sanctions against it

Marada Movement’s chief says ‘we never were or will be shy about our position, which we are openly proud of’; terror group says it’s a ‘badge of honor’

A composite picture shows Lebanese Public Works and Transportation Minister Youssef Fenianos entering parliament in Beirut, Lebanon, May 23, 2018, left, and Lebanese former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil arriving at the parliament, in Beirut, Lebanon, July 16, 2019.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A composite picture shows Lebanese Public Works and Transportation Minister Youssef Fenianos entering parliament in Beirut, Lebanon, May 23, 2018, left, and Lebanese former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil arriving at the parliament, in Beirut, Lebanon, July 16, 2019.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT — A powerful political group allied with Hezbollah denounced Wednesday the US sanctions imposed against one of its senior members, saying they infringe on Lebanon’s sovereignty and will not succeed in extracting any concessions.

The statement by the Shiite Amal group headed by Lebanon’s longtime Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri came a day after the US Treasury sanctioned two former Cabinet ministers who are allied with Hezbollah.

The new sanctions — a rare move by Washington targeting politicians close to the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group — sent a strong political message to local allies of the group, including President Michel Aoun who maintains a political alliance with Hezbollah.

The sanctioned officials are former finance minister and top Amal official Ali Hassan Khalil and former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos, a senior member of the Christian Marada Movement. That organization is allied with Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Khalil is currently a member of the Lebanese Parliament.

The Marada Movement’s chief, Sleiman Fangieh, said in a short statement that the American decision is political, adding that “we never were or will be shy about our position, which we are openly proud of.”

Hezbollah also denounced the sanctions as “unjust.”

“We view this unjust decision as a badge of honor for our two dear friends,” the Iran-backed movement said in a statement.

“Everything that is issued by this administration is condemned and rejected,” Hezbollah said of US President Donald Trump’s government.

Washington “will not be able to implement its goals in Lebanon,” it said.

Khalil and Fenianos did not respond to requests by The Associated Press for an interview.

The sanctions marked the first time that allies of Hezbollah have been targeted by sanctions. They came as Lebanon grapples with an unprecedented economic and financial crisis and deals with the aftermath of a devastating explosion at Beirut’s port that killed more than 190, wounded 6,500 and caused damage worth billions of dollars.

Lebanese men watch Hassan Nasrallah, head of the country’s Shiite terror group Hezbollah group, during a televised speech, at a coffee shop in the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut, on August 30, 2020, (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

The sanctions also came as prime minister-designate Mustapha Adib works to form a new cabinet to replace the one that resigned on August 10, six days after nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated in Beirut. The disaster fueled outrage against a ruling class that has run the country for decades amid widespread corruption and mismanagement.

The Amal group said in a statement released after a meeting of its leadership that the sanctions will not make the group change its policies, adding that no matter how much the pressure increases it “will not make concessions” regarding Lebanon’s sea and land border.

Israel and Lebanon both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon plans to start drilling in search of oil and gas in the disputed area before the end of next year. Washington is mediating between the two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948.

On Tuesday, David Schenker, the assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs said “I believe that we are making some incremental progress” regarding the Lebanon-Israel border dispute. Schenker added he hopes to sign a framework agreement for the two countries to start discussing their maritime dispute.

Amal, whose leader has been leading the talks with the US over the border dispute, said a framework agreement was reached with the American side. The group added that Washington agreed on it July 9, but so far is refusing to make a public announcement about the deal.

Some analysts in Lebanon saw the sanctions as a message to Hezbollah’s allies to review their links with the Iran-backed group, especially by targeting a Christian ally for the first time.

“Fenianos and Ali Hassan Khalil are two central figures in the coalition that is led by Hezbollah,” said Ali Hamadeh, a political writer at An-Nahar newspaper who is often critical of the Iran-backed group.

He added that by sanctioning Fenianos, the US is sending a message to Frangieh, the Marada chief, who is a presidential hopeful. Hamadeh said Hezbollah’s non-Shiite allies will now have to “think seriously about the repercussions of their relations with Hezbollah.”

He said at a later stage, the sanctions might target members of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which has been Hezbollah’s strongest Christian ally since 2006.

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