Hezbollah’s most senior military commander in Syria’s war has been killed in Damascus, the Lebanon-based militant organisation says.
Mustafa Amine Badreddine died in a large explosion near Damascus airport, Hezbollah said in a statement on the website of its al-Manar network.
It rolled back on an earlier claim that Israel was responsible.
Badreddine is charged with leading the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005.
Hezbollah supports Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria.
The US treasury, which imposed sanctions on Badreddine last July, said at the time he was “responsible for Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria since 2011, including the movement of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to Syria, in support of the Syrian regime”.
Profile: Lebanon’s Hezbollah
Who stands accused of Hariri killing?
Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV had earlier said that Badreddine, 55, died in an Israeli air strike. Israel has not commented on the claim.
Announcing Badreddine’s death, Hezbollah said in an initial statement: “He took part in most of the operations of the Islamic resistance since 1982.”
The second statement, on al-Manar’s website, said: “The investigation will work on determining the nature of the explosion and its causes and whether it was a result of an air, missile or artillery attack.
“We will announce further results of the investigations soon.”
Al-Manar said he would be buried this afternoon in Beirut.
Born in 1961, he is believed to have been a senior figure in Hezbollah’s military wing.
He was a cousin and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, who was the military wing’s chief until his assassination by car bomb in Damascus in 2008.
Who are Hezbollah?
- Meaning “The Party of God”, it is a Shia Islamist political, military and social organisation that wields considerable power in Lebanon, after taking part in elections for the first time in 1992
- It emerged with the help of Iran during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s. Its ideological roots stretch back to the Shia Islamic revival in Lebanon in the 1960s and ’70s
- In 1985, it called for the “obliteration” of Israel, which it said was occupying Muslim lands
- In 2008, it launched a cross-border attack on Israel, which retaliated with strikes on Hezbollah strongholds during a 34-day war
- The group has accused Israel of targeting a number of its fighters in air strikes in Syria, including senior official Samir Qantar in December 2015 – Israel never comments on whether it is involved
- In early 2016, Saudi Arabia led Gulf countries and the Arab League to declare it a terrorist group, accusing it of “hostile acts”
Badreddine is reported to have sat on Hezbollah’s Shura Council and served as an adviser to the group’s overall leader Hassan Nasrallah.
According to one report, a Hezbollah member interrogated by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), described Badreddine as “more dangerous” than Mughniyeh, who was “his teacher in terrorism”.
They are alleged to have worked together on the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 personnel.
Badreddine is being tried in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, in The Hague, over the killing of Mr Hariri.
He was indicted on four charges and was said by the tribunal to be “the overall controller of the operation” to kill Mr Hariri.
Three other Hezbollah members also stand accused of their role in the assassination.
The indictment also details Badreddine’s role in bombings in Kuwait in 1983, that targeted the French and US embassies and other facilities, and killed six people.
He was sentenced to death over the attacks, but later escaped from prison.