BEIRUT // Gunmen yesterday assassinated a senior Hizbollah commander outside his home in southern Beirut.
The killing was a major breach of the militant Shiite group’s security as it struggles to maintain multiple fronts while it fights alongside president Bashar Al Assad’s forces in Syria.
The overnight assassination of Hassan Al Laqis, described as a founding member of the group and one of its top commanders, was a huge blow to the Iranian-backed group that dominates power in Lebanon.
Hizbollah’s heavy-handed and open involvement in the civil war next door has enraged the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels seeking to remove Mr Al Assad, and those sectarian divisions have spilt over into Lebanon and exposed the group and its Shiite supporters to retaliatory attacks.
Hizbollah strongholds have been the target of deadly car bomb attacks and suicide bombers attacked the Iranian embassy in Beirut last month, killing 23 people.
The militant group quickly blamed its main enemy Israel for the assassination but Israeli officials denied involvement.
Al Laqis’ killing came shortly after the Hizbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, ended a three-hour interview with a local television station.
The group announced his death in a statement, saying Al Laqis was killed as he returned home from work around midnight.
“The brother martyr Hassan Al Laqis spent his youth and all his life in this honourable resistance since its inception up until the last moments of his life,” the statement said.
An official close to Hizbollah said Al Laqis held some of the group’s most-sensitive portfolios and was close to Mr Nasrallah.
A Lebanese security official and the official close to Hizbollah said Al Laqis was shot with a pistol fitted with a silencer at close range after he parked his car in the ground- floor garage of his apartment building in the Hadath neighbourhood, just south-west of Beirut.
He was struck by five bullets in the head and neck, the Lebanese official said. Al Laqis was rushed to a nearby hospital but died early yesterday from his wounds, officials said.
The car park was stained with muddied footprints that led to a small olive grove nearby. Yellow police tape blocked off the area and Hizbollah investigators were at the scene.
“I was trying to sleep, and I heard ... a bullet being fired and a dog barking,” said Abdullah, a local resident who wished to be identified only with his first name. “I did not bother myself, but later I heard people screaming. I had a look and found it was crowded, and then our neighbours told us that one of the neighbours was assassinated,” Abdullah said.
The Lebanese state news agency later published a photograph it identified as Al Laqis. The image showed a man who appeared to be in his mid-40s, with neatly cut black hair and a greying close-cropped beard, wearing beige-and-khaki military clothing.
Hizbollah claimed that Israel tried to kill him several times.
“The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame,” it said. “This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this heinous crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance.”
The Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, denied any involvement.
“Israel has nothing to do with this incident,” Mr Palmor said. “These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hizbollah. They don’t need evidence, they don’t need facts, they just blame anything on Israel.”
Hizbollah has fought several wars against Israel. Al Laqis’ son died fighting Israel in the month-long 2006 war. Israel’s spy service has been suspected of assassinating Hizbollah commanders for more than two decades.
In 1992, Israeli helicopter gunships ambushed the motorcade of the Hizbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife, 5-year-old son and four bodyguards. Eight years earlier, the Hizbollah leader, Sheik Ragheb Harb, was assassinated in south Lebanon.
But one of the biggest blows for the group came in 2008 when Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hizbollah military commander, was killed by a bomb that destroyed his car in Damascus.
* Associated Press