This undated handout image released on Friday, May 13, 2016, by Hezbollah Media Department, shows slain top military commander Mustafa Badreddine smiling during a meeting. Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group said its top military commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed in Syria. (Hezbollah Media Department via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT, NO SALES
This undated handout image released on Friday, May 13, 2016, by Hezbollah Media Department, shows slain top military commander Mustafa Badreddine smiling during a meeting. Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group said its top military commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed in Syria. — AP

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah announced yesterday that its top military commander had been killed in an attack in Syria, where the group has deployed thousands of fighters backing the Damascus regime. Hezbollah said it was investigating the cause of the blast near Damascus airport but did not immediately point the finger at Israel as it did when the commander’s predecessor was assassinated in the Syrian capital in 2008.

The death of Mustafa Badreddine, who had led Hezbollah’s intervention in support of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime since the start of the five-year war, came as a fragile truce in Syria teetered on the brink of collapse. Badreddine, in his mid-50s, was a key player in Hezbollah’s military wing. He was on a US terror sanctions blacklist, was a key suspect in the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri and was one of the “most wanted” by Israel.

Badreddine was also sentenced to death in Kuwait for his role in bomb attacks there in 1983. He escaped from prison in Kuwait after Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, invaded the country in 1990. His release from jail in Kuwait was one of the demands made by the hijackers of a TWA flight in 1985, and of the hijackers of a Kuwait Airways flight in 1988.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah did not say which of Badreddine’s many enemies it held responsible for his death. But second-in-command Sheikh Naim Qassem told mourners at the funeral he was killed in a “huge blast” at a Hezbollah position near Damascus airport. He said a probe was under way, but “because there are many possibilities, we don’t want to anticipate the investigation”. “I assure you however that within hours, no later than Saturday morning, we will give a detailed account about what caused the blast and who was behind it,” Qassem said.

Hezbollah has “clear indication” on who was responsible and how it happened, “but we need some more time to be one hundred percent sure”, he added. Baghdad-based US military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said it was unclear who carried out the strike, but the United States was not involved. He also said “it’s simply too soon to tell” who was behind the attack and what its effect would be.

Qassem spoke at Badreddine’s funeral in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut. A huge crowd thronged the streets as Badreddine’s coffin draped in Hezbollah’s yellow flag was carried by uniformed young men. Mourners carried portraits of Badreddine, or threw handfuls of rice and flowers to celebrate his death as a “martyr”. Badreddine’s predecessor, Imad Mughniya, his cousin and brother-in-law, was killed in Damascus in a 2008 bombing that drew immediate threats by Hezbollah of heavy retaliation against Israel. It made no such threats after Badreddine’s death.

Israel made no comment, as was also the case in 2008, but Israeli media underlined Hezbollah’s failure to apportion blame. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV listed Israel among the group’s enemies. “The enemies of our great martyrs are known, the Zionists (Israel), the Americans or the takfiris (extremists),” it said. Badreddine’s death comes months after another Hezbollah figure, Samir Kantar, was killed in a Dec 2015 air strike near Damascus which the group blamed on Israel. – Agencies