As the European Union debates sanctions against Hezbollah following evidence linking it to the Burgas terror attack in Bulgaria last year, new information on the organization's activity emerges in another EU state – Cyprus.
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The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a 24-year-old citizen of Lebanon and Sweden who was arrested in Cyprus a few months ago, is currently being tried in Limassol for his activities as a Hezbollah operative. He admitted conducting operations for the organization in Cyprus, France, and Turkey, some of which involved tracking Israeli tourists.
Yaacoub was arrested in Cyprus on July 7, less than two weeks after the Burgas attack. He admitted to being a member of the organization since 2007 and acting under the orders of a handler he knew only as Ayman who wore a mask to meetings scheduled using code-words.
Yaacoub's verdict is expected in March. He was charged on eight counts, including conspiring to commit a crime, membership in a criminal organization, and obstruction of justice.
In his testimony, Yaacoub denied participating in preparations for an attack against Israeli tourists in Cyprus. “Even if they asked me to carry out a terrorist attack I would refuse. I could never do that,” he said. “I’ve only trained to defend Lebanon.”
The prosecution said Yaacoub was arrested while in possession of a notepad in which license-plate numbers of busses transporting Israeli tourists were written. Yaacoub claimed he wrote down the numbers only because they reminded him of a Lamborghini car and a Kawasaki motorcycle model.
In his testimony, Yaacoub admitted to having carried out several operations for Hezbollah: During a trip to France, he was asked to collect a number of bags in Lyon; in Amsterdam, he was asked to pick up a cellular phone, two SIM cards, and an object rolled in newspaper. In both cases he was directed to convey the articles to Lebanon.
Yaacoub stated that he flew to Sweden on July 26 to renew his passport and traveled from there to Cyprus, where his handler instructed him to observe a Limassol hospital parking lot and a hotel named the Golden Arches. He was also asked to purchase two cellular phone SIM cards and locate internet-cafes in Limassol and Nicosia. Yaacoub said he was directed to locate restaurants serving kosher food in these cities, but failed to do so.
Reacting to an accusation that he had conducted several information-gathering visits to the Larnaca airport, he said these trips were the result of problems with his rental car's air-conditioning system. "I have no accomplices and I am not hiding weapons," he stated.
The many details emerging from the trial point to significant activity being conducted by Hezbollah across the EU. It is quite possible that the information brought to light will impact proceedings underway in Brussels, where EU institutions are discussing the possibility of imposing sanctions against Hezbollah.
The United States, the U.K. and Israel are among the countries attempting to place the organization on the EU terror list and will also likely be aided by the new information.
The findings of the Burgas attack investigation, which were published two weeks ago, suggested that Hezbollah's military arm was behind the bombing. The evidence was presented by Bulgaria's foreign minister to his EU counterparts last Monday, calling upon them to take "joint steps" against the organization.