BEIRUT, May 13, (Agencies): Hezbollah’s top military commander Mustafa Badreddine has been killed in a blast at a base near Damascus airport, the Lebanese Shi’ite group said on Friday, one of the biggest blows to its leadership the Iranian-backed organisation has ever sustained.
Hezbollah did not immediately say on Friday who it blamed for the attack, but its deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said there were clear indications of who was behind it, and the group would announce the outcome of its investigation within hours. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
At least one Hezbollah figure blamed the group’s age-old enemy Israel, which has struck Hezbollah targets in Syria several times in the past since civil war started there in 2011. Israel declined to comment, but a former Israeli official said his country would be glad Badreddine was dead.
Hezbollah also has many other foes in Syria, where it fights in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad against a range of Sunni Muslim groups including Islamic State.
Thousands of Hezbollah fighters and leaders gathered at a mosque in Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut and gave Badreddine a military funeral, waving Hezbollah flags. They chanted Shi’ite religious slogans, as well as “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”.
Speaking at the funeral, Qassem also vowed that the group would continue on the “path” of Badreddine.
In a letter, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif extended condolences “for the martyrdom of this great jihadist … who embodied devotion and vigor and was legendary in his defense of high Islamic goals and his defense of the Lebanese people who resist oppression and terrorism.”
The US government believed Badreddine, 55, was in charge of Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria.
He is the most senior Hezbollah official killed since 2008 when his brother-in-law, long-serving military commander Imad Moughniyah, was blown up by a bomb planted in his car in Damascus that Hezbollah blamed on Israel.
The latest killing follows other recent losses for Hezbollah and Iran in Syria, despite Russian military intervention in support of Assad and his allies in a five year multi-sided civil war that has drawn in neighbouring states and world powers.
At least four prominent figures in Hezbollah have been killed since January 2015. A number of high-ranking Iranian officers have also been killed, either fighting Syrian insurgents or in Israeli attacks.
Hezbollah said it was investigating whether the explosion at the base was caused by an air strike, a missile attack or artillery bombardment. It did not say when he was killed.
“This is an open war and we should not preempt the investigation but certainly Israel is behind this,” said Nawar al-Saheli, a Hezbollah member of Lebanon’s parliament, hinting at the prospect of retaliation: “The resistance will carry out its duties at the appropriate time.”
Israel never confirms or denies allegations of targetted killings of individuals abroad. When asked by an interviewer on Israel Radio about possible Israeli involvement, cabinet minister Zeev Elkin, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declined to comment.
Hezbollah is Lebanon’s most powerful political and military group, having grown stronger since forcing Israel to end its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. The sides fought a 34-day war in 2006, their last major conflict.
Israel deems Hezbollah its most potent enemy and worries that it is becoming entrenched on its Syrian front and acquiring more advanced weaponry.
“We don’t know if Israel is responsible for this,” Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, told Israel’s Army Radio. “Remember that those operating in Syria today have a lot of haters without Israel.”
“But from Israel’s view, the more people with experience, like Badreddine, who disappear from the wanted list, the better,” he said.
A US Department of the Treasury statement detailing sanctions against Badreddine last year said he was assessed to be responsible for the group’s military operations in Syria since 2011, and he had accompanied Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during strategic coordination meetings with Assad in Damascus.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the US-led coalition effort against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, said it was too soon to assess what impact Badreddine’s death might have on Hezbollah but noted that it had suffered heavy casualties in Syria.
“But with regards to this specific strike, who took it and what the downstream impact is going to be of losing this leader — it’s simply too soon to tell,” he said.
Announcing his death, Hezbollah quoted Badreddine as saying he would return from Syria victorious or as a martyr. A photo released by the group showed him before his death, smiling and wearing a camouflage baseball cap.
Badreddine’s death sparked wide condemnation from Lebanese political allies. “His martyrdom is a big loss for the Lebanese in their fight against Israeli-Zionist aggression and Takfiri terrorism,” Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil told Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, in reference to Israel and Sunni miliant groups.
“His loss will leave a vacuum but the lesson is to continue on the path that he chose — resistance and Jihad until victory is achieved.”
Badreddine was 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.
For years, Badreddine masterminded military operations against Israel from Lebanon and overseas and managed to escape capture by Arab and Western governments.
Badreddine was also one of five Hezbollah members indicted by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the 2005 killing of statesman Rafik al-Hariri, one of Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni Muslim figures. Hezbollah denied any involvement and said the charges were politically motivated.
Around 1,200 Hezbollah fighters are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian conflict. These include prominent figures Samir Qantar and Jihad Moughniyah, the son of Imad Moughniyah, who were killed in separate Israeli attacks last year.
Hezbollah responded in both cases, though the incidents were contained, with the sides seeking to avoid any repeat of the 2006 war which exacted a heavy price in Israel and Lebanon.
Insurgents killed at least 19 civilians believed to be from families of fighters loyal to the Syrian government after capturing an Alawite village from government control in western Syria on Thursday, a monitoring group said.
Residents from the village of al-Zara interviewed by state media said rebels had killed women, children and livestock. The rebels said they had abided by the rules of war.
Dozens of people are still missing, believed to have been abducted from the village, which lies close to a main highway linking the western cities of Homs and Hama, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.
The Observatory said the attackers included major Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
An Ahrar al-Sham official could not be reached by phone and did not immediately respond to a text message from Reuters seeking comment.
The 19 dead, who included six women, are believed to have been killed as rebels stormed houses during their attack on al-Zara, said the Observatory, which monitors the war through a network of sources.
An image shared on social media claimed to show rebel fighters next to the bodies of two women in al-Zara.
Responding to the image, an alliance of rebel groups behind the attack said the women had been killed because they were armed and opened fire during what it called the “liberation” of al-Zara.
A statement from the Homs Operations Room said responding to fire regardless of its source was justified “according to Islamic rules and ethics of war”.
Government forces trying to re-take the Alawite village have used air strikes and barrel bombs. The government and their allies were still fighting insurgents nearby, the monitoring group said.
The Alawites are a minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite.
At least eight of the rebels had been killed, the Observatory said. The insurgents had also captured government fighters.
Syrian state TV broadcast interviews with men and children who had fled the attack. They said rebels killed women, children and elderly people, slaughtered livestock and destroyed houses as they attacked.
Opposition activists say suspected Syrian government airstrikes in the northern city of Idlib killed at least five people.
The strikes Friday came amid a stepped up air campaign in central and northern Syria the day after Islamic militants, including fighters from al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, seized an Alawite village. Activists and pro-government media say scores of civilians were killed when the Sunni insurgents took over the central village of Zaara.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the airstrikes in Idlib killed five people. Ahmad al-Ahmad, an activist from the nearby city of Hama, put the toll at six. Both reported other airstrikes around Zaara.
Syria’s state news agency SANA says government warplanes struck al-Qaeda strongholds in Idlib province and Hama, killing more than 30 militants.
Belgium will extend its F-16 air strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Iraq into Syria, the government said Friday, as it grapples with the aftermath of deadly IS-claimed bomb attacks in Brussels in March.
“In accordance with UN Resolution 2249, the engagement will be limited to those areas of Syria under the control of IS and other terrorist groups,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Charles Michel told AFP after a cabinet meeting.
“The objective will be to destroy these groups’ refuges,” the spokesman said, adding that the strikes would begin on July 1.
Belgium launched its first attacks against IS in Iraq in late 2014 as part of the US-led coalition, but decided against strikes in Syria amid public fears over getting dragged into a wider conflict.
However, the Nov 13 Paris attacks which left 130 people dead brought home the IS threat to the heart of Europe and changed sentiment sharply.
The UN Security Council expressed outrage on Thursday at attacks on civilians and medical facilities in Syria and warned they may amount to war crimes.
Backed by Russia, Syria’s ally, the council released the statement ahead of a key meeting in Vienna on Tuesday of the 17-nation International Support Group for Syria (ISSG).
World powers face the daunting task of shoring up a collapsing ceasefire, agreeing on a new date for peace talks and pressing for aid deliveries to areas crushed by starvation sieges.
International alarm has grown after a camp for displaced Syrians was hit by an air strike in northern Syrian and hospitals were hit by shelling and air strikes during fierce fighting in Aleppo this month.
Council members “expressed outrage at all recent attacks in Syria directed against civilians and civilian objects including medical facilities, as well as all indiscriminate attacks, and stressed that these actions may amount to war crimes,” said the statement.
The council in particular stressed “the obligation to distinguish between civilian populations and combatants, and the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks and attacks against civilians and civilian objects.
Egyptian Ambassador Amr Aboulatta, this month’s president of the council, said restoring the ceasefire was a priority.
“We have to really stand firm against any breach of this cessation of hostilities,” he said.
“We are in contact with all the parties inside Syria and trying to find a way to secure the situation.”
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the ISSG meeting must lead to a return to the truce agreed between the United States and Russia at the end of February.
“What is important is that out of the ISSG come a recommitment to the cessation of hostilities,” said Dujarric.
Amnesty International said on Friday that Syrian insurgent groups might have committed war crimes in their heavy bombardment of a Kurdish-controlled area of the northern city of Aleppo.
The rights watchdog said it had collected evidence of the killing of dozens of civilians by indiscriminate shellfire on the Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood in Syria’s former commercial hub, which is mostly split between government and rebel control.
The violence is part of intense fighting pitting the Kurdish YPG militia — which is backed by Washington in the fight against Islamic State militants — against rebel groups, some of them backed by foreign countries via Turkey.
Both sides have accused each other of killing civilians.
“Armed groups surrounding the Sheikh Maqsoud district … have repeatedly carried out indiscriminate attacks that have struck civilian homes, streets, markets and mosques, killing and injuring civilians and displaying a shameful disregard for human life,” Amnesty said in a statement.
The attacks “may amount to war crimes,” its deputy Middle East director Magdalena Mughrabi said.