US seizes $150 million from Lebanese bank in laundering scheme

Tue Aug 21, 2012 3:08am IST

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* Money originated in Beirut, smuggled back by Hezbollah

* Bank merged with Lebanese unit of Societe Generale

By Basil Katz

NEW YORK, Aug 20 (Reuters) - U.S. authorities said on Monday that they had seized $150 million from a Lebanese bank suspected of being at the heart of international money-laundering schemes linked to the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah.

In February 2011, the U.S. Treasury department designated the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a "primary money-laundering concern." The privately owned bank was subsequently merged with the Lebanese subsidiary of Societe Generale.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration accused bank officials of knowingly participating in a scheme in which money from various individuals and companies in Beirut was sent from Lebanon to purchase used cars in the United States. The cars were then sold in West Africa, and Hezbollah-linked groups would help smuggle the proceeds into Lebanon, authorities said.

Hezbollah is a Shi'ite Islamist guerrilla and political movement founded with Iran's help after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Washington considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist group. U.S. officials say that it has become increasingly involved in the drug trade, facilitating the distribution and sale of cocaine in West Africa.

The money seized was held in corresponding accounts at five different banks in the United States, including Citibank and London-based bank Standard Chartered. The five banks have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

An attorney for the Lebanese Canadian Bank did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

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