The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday imposed new sanctions on seven Lebanese linked to the militant Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its financial arm.
The measures are the latest against Hezbollah, which Washington considers a terrorist group and has targeted with penalties for years.
The development comes as Lebanon is experiencing the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, including a loss of trust in the country's once booming banking sector.
The Treasury said six of the seven sanctioned were the group's ``shadow bankers,'' who used the cover of personal accounts at certain Lebanese banks to evade sanctions against Hezbollah's financial arm. They transferred approximately $500 million over the past decade, it said.
The seventh sanctioned person, Ibrahim Daher, is one of Hezbollah's chief financial executives who oversees the group's overall budget, including the funding for its operations.
The Treasury said al-Qard al-Hasan _ Hezbollah's financial arm which the U.S. has sanctioned since 2007 _ has taken a more prominent role over the years. Founded since 1982 and registered as a charity in Lebanon, the association is used by Hezbollah to gain access to the international financial system, the Treasury said.
While the alleged charity ``purports to serve the Lebanese people, in practice it illicitly moves funds through shell accounts and facilitators,'' the Treasury said. ``By hoarding hard currency that is desperately needed by the Lebanese economy, (it) allows (Hezbollah) to build its own support base and compromise the stability of the Lebanese state.''
Al-Qard al-Hasan, considered Lebanon's largest non-banking financial institution, stepped in amid the latest economic crisis to provide a vital lifeline for many. It has seen a significant increase in clients.
Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently said the association has provided $3.7 billion in loans to some 1.8 million people since its founding.
Hezbollah ``continues to abuse the Lebanese financial sector and drain Lebanon's financial resources at an already dire time,'' said Andrea Gacki, director of the Treasury's office of foreign assets control.
``Such actions demonstrate (Hezbollah's) disregard for financial stability, transparency, or accountability in Lebanon,'' she added.
The Treasury said Daher leads Hezbollah's Central Finance Unit, overseeing its income, budget and coordinating payments of its members while the other six participated in shadow banking activities on behalf of Hezbollah, maintaining joint bank accounts in Lebanese banks that allowed for transfer of money within the formal financial system.