Hizbullah Blames Rebel Shelling for Death of Top Commander

BEIRUT (Reuters) -
Hezbollah members carry the coffin of top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in an attack in Syria, during his funeral in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon, May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Aziz Taher TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Hizbullah members carry the coffin of top Hizbullah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in an attack in Syria, during his funeral in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Lebanon, May 13. (Reuters/Aziz Taher)

Hizbullah said on Saturday its top military commander, whose death it announced on Friday, was killed in Syria by Sunni Islamist artillery fire and not by an Israeli airstrike as one member of the Lebanese Shiite movement had said.

“Investigations have showed that the explosion, which targeted one of our bases near Damascus International Airport, and which led to the martyrdom of commander Mustafa Badreddine, was the result of artillery bombardment carried out by takfiri (hardline Sunni) groups in the area,” Hizbullah said in a statement.

The Shiite Muslim group is fighting in Syria, backing President Bashar al-Assad against a range of Sunni groups including Islamic State and the al-Qaןda-affiliated Nusra Front.

But a war monitoring group cast doubt on its version of Badreddine’s death, saying there had been no shelling by rebels in that area for more than a week.

Damascus airport and its surroundings are controlled by the Syrian government and allied forces. Between it and government-held central Damascus, rebels control a portion of the Eastern Ghouta suburb, which has experienced fighting for most of the conflict now in its sixth year.

“There has been no recorded shelling or firing from the Eastern Ghouta area onto Damascus International Airport for more than a week,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters.

Hizbullah’s statement did not say when the attack took place or when Badreddine died. Badreddine was given a military funeral in Hizbullah’s stronghold in southern Beirut on Friday .

“The outcome of the investigation (into Badreddine’s death) will increase our determination … to continue the fight against these criminal gangs and defeat them,” Hizbullah said.

Iran-backed Hizbullah, considered a terrorist group by the United States and Gulf Arab states, wields enormous political influence in Lebanon alongside its powerful military wing.

Around 1,200 Hizbullah terrorists are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian conflict.

For years, Badreddine masterminded military operations against Israel from Lebanon and overseas and managed to escape capture by Arab and Western governments.

“The martyred commander spent years of his life on the front line of the jihad (struggle) against the Zionist entity,” Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani said in a telegram to Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah reported by the group’s media outlet Al Manar.

Israel declined to comment on speculation it was behind Badreddine’s death.

Former Director of the National Security Council General Yaakov Amidror said Friday that the elimination of Badreddine was “good news” for Israel – but that Israel was not necessarily the party behind the action. “We are not always responsibility for these kinds of things,” Amidror told Army Radio. “We don’t know who is responsible for this. There are a lot of parties at war with each other in Syria, without Israel’s involvement. But the more these experienced terrorists are eliminated from the list of our most wanted, the better.”

Badreddine was one of five Hizbullah members indicted by the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the 2005 killing of statesman Rafik al-Hariri, one of Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni Muslim figures. Hizbullah denied any involvement and said the charges were politically motivated.

A Special Tribunal prosecutor described Badreddine as an elusive character who passed as an “unnoticed and virtually untraceable ghost through Lebanon.”