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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States imposed sanctions on four Lebanese citizens on Tuesday, accusing them of fundraising and recruiting for Hezbollah in West Africa, as Washington seeks to cut off sources of cash for the Lebanese militant group.
The U.S. Treasury Department said Ali Ibrahim al-Watfa, Abbas Loutfe Fawaz, Ali Ahmad Chehade, and Hicham Nmer Khanafer were sanctioned for acting as "ambassadors" for Hezbollah, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist group.
The men were acting in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and the Gambia, it said.
The sanctions mean they are effectively cut off from the U.S. financial system and any dealings with U.S. citizens.
The move was part of a multi-year probe that has exposed what the U.S. government says are tight links between South American drug traffickers and Middle Eastern militant groups such as Hezbollah.
Drug traffickers use West Africa, which has a reputation for lax law enforcement, as a shipping hub to expand into lucrative markets in Europe and the Middle East. Drug proceeds get laundered through exchange houses in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, with some of the funds getting channeled to Hezbollah, Treasury has said.
Hezbollah is a Shi'ite Islamist guerrilla and political movement founded with Iran's help after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Militant groups have found it harder to get money directly from governments in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, when the U.S. government sharply expanded a crack-down on financing.
U.S. officials say Hezbollah receives money from Iran, which has also been hit with financial sanctions over its nuclear program.
"These actions (against the group) are increasingly important as the funding from (Hezbollah's) traditional patron, Iran, is squeezed by international sanctions," David Cohen, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
TIES TO SYRIA
Treasury said Hezbollah has extended its global reach beyond the Middle East to raise funds in other parts of the world and carry out terror attacks in places like Bulgaria and Thailand.
It has also sent fighters to the front lines of the Syrian civil war, where Hezbollah's efforts are seen as tipping the balance in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.
Western powers, Turkey and Gulf states have rallied behind the rebels fighting Assad, despite misgivings over Islamist radicals in their ranks.
Cohen said Hezbollah has coordinated its campaign in Syria with Iran's Quds force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard.
"We will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to disrupt Hezbollah's global support network and terrorist operations," he told reporters. "We will also continue to undermine Iran's financial lifeline to Hezbollah and the Assad regime as they work in tandem to carry out a brutal campaign of repression against the people of Syria."
Cohen said Hezbollah received "in the millions of dollars" from its operations in West Africa.
"Let me add ... (that) whether this is a particularly lucrative area for Hezbollah fundraising, as compared to other mechanisms through which it raises money, is not really the point from our perspective," he said. "What we are trying to do is disrupt Hezbollah's fundraising from whatever source it comes."
The U.S. government first moved against the international drug trafficking network in 2011, designating its alleged leader, Ayman Joumaa, a "drug kingpin," allowing the government to seize his assets. They said the network was doing as much as $200 million a month in business.
They also targeted the Lebanese Canadian Bank, the eighth-largest bank in Lebanon at the time, for allegedly helping the Joumaa network launder money, and last year seized $150 million of its assets.
In the most recent action, the United States in April imposed sanctions against two Lebanese money exchange houses, saying they helped launder funds for the international drug trafficking ring and Hezbollah.
(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Vicki Allen and Paul Simao)