June 19, 2008
CARACAS -- A Lebanese-born businessman living in Venezuela denied U.S. government accusations that he has helped financed Hezbollah, saying he doesn't know anyone in the group.
Fawzi Kan'an, owner of the Caracas-based travel agencies Biblos and Hilal, was accused by the U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday of financing Hezbollah. Also accused of helping provide funding is Ghazi Nasr al Din, whom the United States identified as a Venezuelan diplomat in Lebanon.
The U.S. government regards the Iranian- and Syrian-backed organization as a terrorist group and has no dealings with it.
Any financial assets found in the United States belonging to the two must be frozen and U.S. citizens are forbidden from doing business with the men.
The Treasury Department described Kan'an as a ''significant provider'' of financial support to Hezbollah.
Interviewed at his Hilal travel agency in Caracas, a street-level office with barred windows that blends in among Venezuelan businesses, Kan'an denied the U.S. accusations while fielding calls in Arabic.
''That's pure lies,'' he told The Associated Press. ``What do I have to do with Hezbollah? I don't know the group, don't know anyone.''
Asked if he knows of any accounts that have been frozen, Kan'an said he does have accounts in the United States ``and they aren't frozen.''
The Treasury Department also alleged that Kan'an used his Biblos travel agency to ''courier funds'' to Lebanon, and that he also has traveled with other Hezbollah members to Iran.
''I've never been to Iran in my life,'' said Kan'an, who showed a photograph of himself visiting a pyramid in Egypt in the 1960s.
He said he closed the travel agency Biblos a year ago and is in the process of closing Hilal. He said those decisions have nothing to do with the U.S. government's accusations, and that he is in the process of opening another travel agency. He didn't elaborate.
''I'm going to keep living here with my businesses,'' said Kan'an, whose adult daughter was helping him close up the travel agency for the day.
Kan'an said he moved to Venezuela from Lebanon in 1986 to escape fighting in his homeland. After more than three decades in the country, ''I'm Venezuelan,'' said Kan'an, who speaks Spanish with a thick accent.
''When you're innocent, nothing else matters,'' he said at his desk, a framed Lebanese flag on the wall behind him.
The U.S. government alleges that Nasr al Din used his position as a diplomat and president of a Caracas-based Shiite islamic center to give financial assistance to Hezbollah. There were conflicting reports from the United States and Venezuela over whether he was stationed in Lebanon or Syria.
Nasr al Din is suspected of counseling Hezbollah donors on fundraising efforts and providing donors with specific bank account information where donors' ''deposits would go directly to Hezbollah,'' the department said. He also allegedly arranged the travel of Hezbollah members to Iran.
''It is extremely troubling to see the government of Venezuela employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers,'' said Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Venezuela has a large Lebanese population, many of them immigrants who arrived in the country long before President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999.