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The BBC's Terry Stiastny
"Such a smuggling operation could be very lucrative"
 real 28k

The BBC's Jeff Phillips
"The FBI has spent the day searching the homes and offices of the accused"
 real 28k

The BBC's Andrew Roy
"These arrests may not be the last"
 real 28k

Saturday, 22 July, 2000, 02:03 GMT 03:03 UK
Hezbollah suspects arrested
Hezbollah supporters celebrate Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon
Hezbollah celebrated Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon
Eighteeen people have been arrested in the US, accused of cigarette smuggling and money laundering to raise funds for the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

The alleged activity came to light during a three-year campaign known as Operation Smokescreen.

The ring allegedly bought cigarettes in North Carolina, which has relatively low cigarette taxes of five cents per pack, and sold them in Michigan, where taxes are 75 cents a pack.

The profits were then allegedly used to smuggle money to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The group is also suspected of supplying night vision equipment to the militia group.

Search warrants

The FBI arrested the suspects in North Carolina and in Michigan in pre-dawn operations on Friday, and all appeared in court later in the day.

They were all charged with fraud and money laundering by trading in untaxed cigarettes, and some were also charged with immigration offences.

One of the accused, Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, thought to be the group's ringleader, was described in an affidavit as well-connected to Hezbollah members in Lebanon.

The affidavit said he is believed to have received Hezbollah-sponsored military training.

About half the group is made up of Lebanese nationals and others are American citizens of Lebanese origin.

They all live in and around Charlotte, North Carolina, except one defendant who is from Northville, Michigan. Warrants were issued to authorise searches of their homes.

'Not violent'

The FBI would not say how much money the group earned from the alleged smuggling, nor what else they were looking for.

An affidavit read out in court suggested some of the accused had been issued visas for the US after bribing an American consular official in Cyprus.

None of the group has been charged with any terrorist offences and the FBI said there was no reason to believe they had planned to carry out any violent crime.

The FBI official confirmed the investigation was helped by the Canadian intelligence services, which have been involved in a number of high-profile anti-terrorist operations with US security authorities in recent months.

Some of the accused will go to court again on Wednesday.

Hezbollah, or the 'Party of God', is the most prominent guerrilla group that fought the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.

It emerged as a military force in the early 1980s during Israel's second invasion and subsequently branched out into civil and political activity.

The guerrillas have received ideological inspiration and financial assistance from Iran, and have been denounced by the United States as a terrorist group.

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See also:

23 May 00 | Middle East
Q & A: Leaving Lebanon
05 May 00 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Meeting Hezbollah fighters
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