A Hezbollah commander who fought in Syria’s civil war was shot dead outside his home in Lebanon on Wednesday in an attack which the militant Shi’ite group blamed on Israel.
Israel denied any role in the killing of Hassan al-Laqqis, who was shot from close range by a silenced gun as he arrived home at around midnight in the Hadath district of Beirut, a source close to Hezbollah said.
Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, also sent fighters into neighbouring Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, an intervention which helped to raise sectarian tension in Lebanon.
A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility for the attack in a message on Twitter. The claim could not be verified but the name of the purported group suggested Lebanese Sunni Muslim connections.
Footage from the scene broadcast by Hezbollah’s Al Manar television on Wednesday showed two bullet marks in a wall and muddy footprints it said had been left by possibly more than one assailant.
Hezbollah described Laqqis, who will be buried in Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley later in the day, as “one of the leaders of the Islamic resistance” against Israel who had been frequently targeted by the Jewish state.
He had been with Hezbollah since it was set up with Iranian support in the 1980s to fight Israeli troops occupying south Lebanon. His son was killed in the 2006 war, Hezbollah said in a statement.
“The Israeli enemy tried to get to our martyr brother several times, in more than one location, but these attempts failed until this repugnant assassination,” it said.
Israel would “bear full responsibility and all the consequences for this heinous crime”, it said.
But Israel denied involvement. “This has strictly nothing to do Israel,” foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
“Hezbollah has made a fool of itself in the past with these automatic and groundless accusations against Israel … If they are looking for explanations as to what is happening to them, they should examine their own actions.”
The source close to Hezbollah said Laqqis had taken part in several battles inside Syria.
Five years ago top Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyah was killed in a Damascus car bombing. Hezbollah has blamed Israel for Moughniyah’s death and vowed to avenge it.
The source also said Wednesday’s attack bore the hallmarks of an Israeli operation, and analyst Charles Lister of IHS Jane’s in London said it suggested an element of “professionalism and prior intelligence”.
“But what is very clear is that it comes under the context of Hezbollah and its role in Syria,” he said. “It was expected that Hezbollah would blame Israel, but that is not necessarily the case.”
The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.
Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Beirut embassy of Hezbollah’s patron Iran killed at least 25 people last month.
An Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman blamed Israel for that attack, but responsibility was claimed by a Lebanon-based al Qaeda-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam brigades.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said he believed the group had support from Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival whose backing for Assad’s foes has pushed it deeper into a proxy conflict in Syria against Tehran.
Abdullah Azzam “is not a fictitious name,” Nasrallah said in an interview broadcast on Lebanese television on Tuesday night. “This group exists … It has its leadership … and I am convinced it is linked to Saudi intelligence,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia is the one who runs these kinds of groups in several places in the world.”