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Cyprus convicts Hezbollah man over anti-Israel plot

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A Cypriot court has found guilty a self-confessed Hezbollah militant who had been accused of involvement in a plot to attack Israeli interests on the Mediterranean island popular with tourists.

Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a dual Lebanese and Swedish citizen arrested in the port of Limassol in July last year, was found guilty Thursday on five counts -- including participating in a criminal organisation, taking part in a criminal act and money laundering.

"Any logical explanation that could present these actions as innocent ones is completely lacking," judges in the Limassol criminal court said in an 80-page decision on how they reached their verdict.

"The purpose of Hezbollah in connection with the actions of the accused, constitute a criminal organisation in this regard... based on the specific actions of the accused in Cyprus," the decision added.

Yaacoub, who faces a sentence of up to 14 years in prison, was however cleared of three charges pertaining to conspiracy to commit a crime because they were covered by the other offences.

The court will reconvene on March 28 to hear mitigating arguments and for sentencing.

Yaacoub told the court last month that he had collected information on Israeli tourists visiting the island, but denied plotting to attack them.

The 24-year-old said he had been asked to log information on Israeli flight arrivals in Cyprus and jot down the number plates of buses carrying tourists from the Jewish state.

Yaacoub said he was unaware what the information was for and was arrested in July before he could communicate the information to a handler, whom he did not know, in Lebanon.

The court said Hezbollah had ordered him to carry out six missions on Cyprus since December 2011, and that he was paid a total of $4,800 by the powerful Shiite militant group.

It said the accused contacted Hezbollah through various Internet cafes in different towns.

Cyprus is becoming ever more popular for Israeli tourists, with arrivals in 2012 increasing 23.5 percent to 39,420.

Shortly after Yaacoub's arrest, five Israeli tourists and their local driver were killed in a bus bombing at an airport in Bulgaria, the deadliest attack on Israelis abroad since 2004, which Israel blamed on Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Reacting to the court ruling, an Israeli official told AFP that Hezbollah's involvement in "terrorism" was clear.

"There is abundant proof that Hezbollah is, and always has been, deeply involved in terrorist activities in Europe and elsewhere and those who do not want to see this are simply covering their eyes," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The verdict was welcomed by US officials, who stated that Hezbollah had been engaging in "increasingly aggressive terrorist activity" around the world in the past year.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the verdict sent "a strong message that Hezbollah can no longer operate with impunity, at home or abroad."

In his testimony, Yaacoub denied planning any attack, but did admit to being in Hezbollah for the past four years while also insisting he worked solely in its political branch.

The defendant said he received orders from a masked Hezbollah operative called Ayman and was told to stake out hotels and hospitals on Cyprus, including in Limassol and the tourist resort of Ayia Napa.

He said his main reason for coming to Cyprus was business-related -- to buy local fruit juice.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130321/cyprus-convicts-hezbollah-man-over-anti-israel-plot-1