The European Union opened the door Tuesday to adding what is known as the Hizbullah terror group’s “military wing” to its list of international terrorist groups, EU diplomats told AFP.
A formal request to blacklist Lebanon's group was filed by Britain and is to be discussed at closed-door talks June 4 of a committee overseeing the EU list of people and groups subject to its asset freezing regime, reported AFP.
"We hope to have an agreement by the end of June on Hizbullah," a diplomat close to the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity told the news agency.
A decision to add the group to the dozen people and score of groups currently blacklisted by the EU -- including Hamas and Colombia's FARC -- will require unanimity from the 27 EU states.
Despite months of strong and steady pressure from Israel and the United States to follow their example and designate Hizbullah as a terrorist group, the EU has up until now skirted an issue seen as sensitive and divisive, with Britain openly in favor but France and Italy reluctant.
As the former colonial power, France fears destabilizing politically fragile Lebanon, where Hizbullah is the leading political group and part of the government.
There was concern too from France, Italy and Spain for the safety of national troops committed to the UN peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, reports AFP.
Italy is a major contributor, making it sensitive to the risk of reprisals, but its position is also based on a view of Hizbullah as a legitimate political force, not merely a military organization.
The calls on the EU to add Hizbullah to its list of terrorist organizations grew after Bulgaria announced that the group was behind the July 2012 terrorist attack in Burgas which killed five Israelis.
Shortly after the Burgas bombing, the EU decided not to list Hizbullah as a terrorist group.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Gujarat Cossack-Marcolis said at the time that "there is no consensus on the issue, because Hizbullah also has an active political arm."
The United States, meanwhile, said Tuesday it does not differentiate between Hizbullah’s armed and political wings as it again urged Europe to blacklist the group.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told AFP the U.S. was "increasingly concerned about Hizbullah’s activities on a number of fronts -- including its stepped up terrorist campaign around the world, and their critical and ongoing support" for Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.
Asked just how the EU would differentiate in applying sanctions between members of Hizbullah’s military wing and its political leadership, an EU official said "we cannot comment on such detail."
But mounting global concern over the Shiite group's active support of Assad has finally swayed even the most reluctant EU nations into shifting gear.
"Hizbullah’s role in Syria convinced member states it was time to act," one diplomat told AFP.
During a visit to Brussels in March, Israeli President Shimon Peres urged the EU to put Hizbullah on the terrorist list, saying it was behind a score of attempted attacks in Europe and arguing that its intervention in Syria against anti-Assad rebels was enabling the group to spread its reach.
"If you do not take measures against Hizbullah, then they may think that they are permitted" to do what they like, Peres said after meeting European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso.
Hizbullah has been on a U.S. terror blacklist since 1995 after a series of anti-American attacks, including the bombing of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in the 1980s.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged the EU to follow Washington's lead in a move that will notably lead to a crackdown on the group's fund-raising activities.
Currently, Britain and the Netherlands are the only EU nations to have placed Hizbullah on their lists of terrorist groups.