The US urged countries around the world to step up action against Lebanese terror group Hezbollah on Monday, as relatives and others marked the anniversaries of two deadly bombings by the group nearly two decades apart.
On July 18, 1994, a van packed with explosives crashed into the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds more in the country’s deadliest-ever attack. Exactly 18 years later, a bomb placed on a bus readying to transport Israeli tourists from an airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, exploded, killing five Israelis and a local bus driver and injuring nearly 40 others.
Emphasizing Iran’s sponsorship of the attacks, the US State Department called on more capitals to join “more than a dozen countries across Europe, South America, Central America, and the Pacific [that] have issued national level designations, bans, or other restrictions” against Hezbollah.
“The callous murder of civilians must not stand,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in the statement. “We urge more countries to take similar measures, which make it harder for the group and its backers in Tehran to threaten peace and security around the globe.”
The comments came days after US President Joe Biden visited the Middle East for meetings focused on bolstering countries in the region against Iranian aggression. During the trip, Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint declaration in Jerusalem in which they committed to “work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
While the State Department has urged action against Hezbollah in the past, it has not previously tied the call for more sanctions to the anniversaries of the bombings.
In Buenos Aires, hundreds gathered near the site of the former AMIA building to commemorate the victims and urge that those responsible be brought to justice. Iran and Hezbollah have long been linked to the suicide bombing. Based on the investigations of Argentine Jewish prosecutor Alberto Nisman, six Iranians and one Lebanese have been on Interpol’s most-wanted list since 2007.
However, Iranians accused of involvement in the plot are still able to move about freely. In January, a public appearance of Iranian official Mohsen Rezaei at the investiture of Nicaragua’s president angered Argentina and drew a harsh response from its Foreign Ministry, which called Rezaei’s presence “an affront to Argentine justice and to the victims of the brutal terrorist attack″ in the Argentine capital.
Rezaei, a former leader of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, is wanted by Argentina on an Interpol “Red Notice” because of the attack.
Meanwhile, Argentina’s current Vice President Cristina Kirchner has faced serious allegations of trying to cover up Iran’s role in the attack. The claim against her was filed in January 2015 by Nisman, who was found dead in his apartment just hours before he was to present evidence against then-president Kirchner. She was absolved of charges last year.
Unlike in previous years, this year’s memorial event of the 1994 attack, which was the first to take place since Kirchner was cleared of coverup, was attended by low-level government representatives. Spotted at the event were Argentinian Education Minister Jaime Perczyk and Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri, who, according to local reports, “kept a low profile.”
Argentinian President Alberto Fernández, who did not attend this year’s memorial, tweeted: “28 years after the attack on the AMIA, we say ‘present’ again. For the 85 people murdered that morning, for their families and for all of Argentina.”
Speaking at the event, the newly elected president of the Jewish community in Argentina Amos Linetzky tied the attack nearly 30 years ago to a recent Argentinian probe into a cargo plane with Iranian and Venezuelan crew that has been grounded outside Buenos Aires since June.
“The plane event shows that Argentina is the same as it was 30 years ago. Our borders are still permeable,” Linetzky said in his speech, according to local media.
While not mentioning Kirchner in his speech, Linetzky focused his criticism on the unit put in charge of investigating the terrorist attack, which he questioned for not producing results in recent months.
“What do you spend your days on, occupying one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the country?” he asked.
Cecilia Incardona, the prosecutor leading the case in Argentina, is focusing her inquiries on the Iranian pilot of the plane, Gholamreza Ghasemi, and his possible ties to international terrorism.
The FBI said in a report to Argentine federal judge Federico Villena, who is in charge of the case, that Ghasemi is CEO of Qeshm Fars Air, which the US Treasury Department says provides material support to the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Iranian airline Mahan Air, according to a document issued by Incardona’s office this week.
Meanwhile, a meeting organized by the US State Department in late June attended by representatives from 30 countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, four other Gulf states and Latin American countries, focused on global efforts taken to counter Hezbollah’s illicit activities, according to a recent Axios report.
The meeting was held in Europe and marked the first of its kind US-led effort to tackle the terror group on a global scale.
Agencies contributed to this report.