Hezbollah accused Israel of assassinating one of its top leaders near Beirut Wednesday at a time of soaring sectarian tensions in Lebanon linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The slain leader, identified as Hassan Hawlo al-Lakiss, was the most senior figure in the Lebanese Shiite movement to be assassinated since Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a Damascus bombing in 2008, which the group also blamed on Israel.
Both men were part of Hezbollah’s secretive top leadership.
“The Islamic resistance announces the death of one of its leaders, the martyr Hassan Hawlo al-Lakiss, who was assassinated near his house in the Hadath region” east of Beirut, Hezbollah said.
“Direct accusation is aimed of course against the Israeli enemy which had tried to eliminate our martyred brother again and again and in several places but had failed, until yesterday evening,” said the statement broadcast by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television channel.
“This enemy must bear full responsibility for and all the consequences of this heinous crime.”
Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor dismissed the allegations as “yet another Pavlovian response from Hezbollah, which makes automatic accusations (against Israel) before even thinking about what’s actually happened.”
“Israel has nothing to do with this,” he said.
Al-Manar said Lakiss had been repeatedly shot with a silenced handgun after parking his car in the building where he lived, adding that more than one assailant took part in the attack.
A Hezbollah source said Lakiss was close to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and would be buried at 2 p.m. in Baalbek, a Hezbollah bastion in eastern Lebanon.
Hezbollah emerged during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s with the aim of driving Israeli forces out of the country and battled Israel to a bloody stalemate in 2006.
Hezbollah said Lakiss’s son was killed in the war, which claimed the lives of some 1,200 Lebanese, mainly civilians, and more than 150 Israelis, mainly soldiers.
The Israeli-Lebanese border has been mostly since then, however, and Hezbollah has more recently trained its fire on the Sunni-led rebels in neighboring Syria, where it is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Hezbollah’s decision to intervene in Syria has fueled tensions inside Lebanon, which is bitterly divided over the war.
Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut was hit by two car bomb attacks this summer, one of which killed 27 people, and attacks in the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli in late August killed 45 people.
Nasrallah defended his group’s involvement in Syria in a television interview on Tuesday, saying it was fighting to protect Lebanon from Syrian rebels, who include militants linked to Al-Qaeda.
“Should Syria fall into the hands of these (rebel) armed groups, what will Lebanon’s future be?” Nasrallah asked. “We went to Syria to defend all of Lebanon.”
Nasrallah also accused Saudi Arabia of being behind a double suicide bombing at Iran’s Beirut embassy last month that killed 25 people and was claimed by an Al-Qaeda-linked group.
While Hezbollah and its regional backer Iran support Assad, Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni-led rebels seeking his ouster.
On Wednesday Syria’s information minister Omran al-Zohbi accused Saudi Arabia of sending “terrorists” to Syria to battle the regime, using the term Damascus applies to all the rebels battling to oust Assad.
“Saudi Arabia and Israel have an interest in attacking (the government) in Damascus and continuing the war so they can impose their conditions,” he said in remarks carried by state media.
“All the evidence indicates that the Saudi terrorists are trained by Saudi intelligence,” he said, adding that Western nations were “aware of the danger” posed by such groups.
Zohbi also reiterated the regime’s insistence that Assad would not step down as part of a peace process set to resume next month in Geneva.
“If anyone thinks we are going to Geneva 2 to hand the keys to Damascus over (to the opposition), they might as well not go,” he said.
“The decision rests with President Assad. He will lead the period of transition, if there is one. He is the leader of Syria… And he will remain the president of Syria.”
(Ma’an and Agencies – www.maannews.net)