Scene of assassination of Hezbollah arms chief - AP
A Hezbollah flag hangs on yellow police tape sealing off the scene where Hassan al-Laqis, a senior commander for Hezbollah, was gunned down outside his home, near Beirut, Lebanon, Dec. 4, 2013. Photo by AP
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AFP
Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis who was assassinated on Tuesday night. Photo by AFP

Two jihadist groups yesterday claimed responsibility for the assassination of a Hezbollah commander in southern Beirut. Despite this, Hezbollah blamed Israel for the killing, which Israel flatly denied.

Hassan al-Laqis was shot by men firing silencer-fitted guns as he returned home at about midnight Tuesday, a Hezbollah statement said.

A previously unknown group, the Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility for the attack in a Twitter message. This was followed by a statement from another unknown group, Ansar al-Umma al-Islamiya, which said it had assassinated Laqis because he was “Hezbollah’s field commander and directly responsible for the massacre in Qusayr,” a Syrian rebel town that fell to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in June, with Hezbollah’s help.

Hezbollah rejected these statements, with a senior Hezbollah official telling Lebanese journalists the organization would not have blamed Israel for such a major operation unless it was certain Israel was behind it. “Why credit Israel with this operation if we weren’t sure it was responsible?” he said.

Israel denies involvement

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor denied Israeli involvement, saying, “Israel has nothing to do with this incident. These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah. They don’t need evidence, they don’t need facts, they just blame anything on Israel.” (After a number of previous assassinations in the region that foreign media attributed to Israel, including that of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, there was no denial or confirmation from Jerusalem.)

The Hezbollah official also dismissed as “nonsense” the rumors that personal disputes were behind the attack. “The groups claiming responsibility are trying to divert attention; they’re all helpless to act against Hezbollah and couldn’t pull off such a mission,” he said.

The official said Laqis wasn’t a very senior commander, but had been on Israel’s hit list for years and had escaped three assassination attempts. However, earlier reports said Laqis was a senior member of Hezbollah’s military wing and for many years served as the group’s technology and arms chief. The reports said Laqis also maintained extensive contact with Iranian and Syrian intelligence, was known to Western intelligence since the 1980s, and was seen as very knowledgeable about the secrets of Hezbollah’s operations.

The Hezbollah official also said the attack was highly professional. The assassins surprised Laqis at the entrance to his home and shot him point blank in the upper torso, he said.

Eye-witnesses told Beirut-based Al Mayadeen TV that the park behind Laqis’ apartment building leads to one of Beirut’s main thoroughfares. The assassins are believed to have emerged from the park and fired rapidly at Laqis before fleeing the spot to a getaway car.

Laqis died from his wounds shortly after arriving in hospital yesterday morning and was buried in a military ceremony in his hometown of Baalbek, Hezbollah said.

The Lebanese state news agency later published a photograph of Laqis, who appeared to be in his mid-40s, with and was wearing beige-and-khaki military clothing.

Lebanese media reported that Israel tried to assassinate him during the 2006 Lebanon war but failed.

According to foreign media, Israel launched at least six strikes on weapons convoys in Syria to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.