BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Lebanese group Hezbollah condemned on Friday the British government’s decision to list it as a terrorist organisation, saying the move showed “servile obedience” to the United States.
The heavily armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran, said in a statement it was a “resistance movement against Israeli occupation” and described the British move as an “insult to the feelings, sympathies and will of the Lebanese people that consider Hezbollah a major political and popular force”.
“Hezbollah sees in this decision servile obedience to the U.S. administration, revealing that the British government is but a mere a follower in service of its American master,” the statement added.
Britain said on Monday it planned to ban all wings of Hezbollah due to its destabilising influence in the Middle East, having previously proscribed its external security unit and its military wing. Hezbollah is already deemed a terrorist organisation by Washington.
Long the most powerful group in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s clout has expanded at home and in the region. The group controls three of 30 ministries in the government led by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the largest number ever. It does not acknowledge having separate political and military wings.
Hezbollah and political allies that view its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon won more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats in an election last year, a major blow to Lebanese parties that oppose its possession of weapons like the Christian Lebanese Forces which enjoys close ties to U.S.-allied Gulf states.
Hezbollah, founded in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has also seen its regional influence expand with fighters in various Middle East conflicts including neighbouring Syria.
The British ban means anyone who is a member of Hezbollah or invites support will be committing a criminal offence with a potential jail sentence of up to 10 years.
The move may raise questions for London’s relationship with Lebanon, which includes military and security aid.
Following the decision, Hariri said he hoped the decision should not harm bilateral ties, telling reporters: “We consider that this matter pertains to Britain, not Lebanon.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt reiterated Britain’s support for “a stable and prosperous Lebanon” and said the listing would “not change our ongoing commitment to Lebanon...”
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a political ally of Hezbollah, said the British move would not have a negative impact on Lebanon and that Britain had informed Lebanon of its commitment to bilateral ties.
But he also defended the group, whose arsenal has been a focal point of political division for years in Lebanon.
Inside Britain, Hezbollah has been a topic of internal political controversy, with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn criticised by opponents for once calling the group friends.
Writing by Tom Perry/Stephen Kalin, Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean