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U.S. blacklists ex-Lebanese ministers over Hezbollah ties, vows more action

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expanded its sanctions on Lebanon on Tuesday, blacklisting two former government ministers it accused of providing material and financial help to Hezbollah and warning that more actions targeting the Iran-backed Shi’ite group were coming.

U.S. officials also said Washington was coordinating with France on Lebanon but voiced criticism over a meeting French President Emmanuel Macron held with Lebanese politicians, including a member of Hezbollah, seen as a terrorist organization by the United States.

In a statement, the U.S. Treasury Department said it had designated former Lebanese Transport Minister Yusuf Finyanus and former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil for engaging in corruption and leveraging their political power for financial gain.

“Finyanus and Khalil were involved in directing political and economic favors to Hezbollah and involved in some of the corruption that made Hezbollah’s work possible in Lebanon,” David Schenker, assistant secretary for Near East Affairs at the U.S. State Department told a briefing call.

“This should be a message to both to those who cooperate with Hezbollah, those who enable Hezbollah but also to Lebanon’s political leaders,” Schenker said. “Everyone should absolutely expect more designations to come,” he added.

Media reports suggested that Washington had been initially looking to designate Gebran Bassil, the influential son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and a former foreign minister who heads the largest Christian political bloc in the sectarian power-sharing system.

Asked by reporters if Bassil and Riad Salama, a Lebanese central bank governor, were next to be sanctioned by the United States, senior U.S. government officials on a separate briefing call declined to comment.

Fifteen years after the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, heavily armed group Hezbollah has risen to become the overarching power in a country that is now collapsing under a series of devastating crises.

Lebanon’s banks are paralyzed, its currency has crashed and sectarian tensions are rising. On top of that, a huge port blast last month smashed a large swath of Beirut, killing more than 190 people and causing damage estimated at up to $4.6 billion.

Macron, whose pressure prompted Lebanon’s bickering leaders to agree on a new prime minister, has spearheaded international efforts to set Lebanon on a new course after decades of corrupt rule led to its deepest crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

While France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, is at the forefront of diplomacy, Iran through its support for Hezbollah also has influence. The United States is also a major donor to Lebanon, including to the Lebanese army.

Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk; Additional Reporting by Raya Jalabi in Beirut; Editing by Tom Brown