Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group is mourning the killing in Syria of its top military commander, Mustafa Badreddine, who died in an explosion in Damascus.
His death is a major blow to the Shiite group. Badreddine, 55, had been the mastermind of the group’s involvement in Syria’s civil war since Hezbollah fighters joined the battle on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces against those trying to remove him from power.
Hezbollah, along with Iran, has been one of Assad’s strongest backers.
But there was little information as to how he was killed. Hezbollah said the attack occurred near the Damascus airport without giving details.
The airport is close to the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab where the group has wide presence and several military positions.
Hezbollah said several others were wounded in the blast and that it was investigating the nature of the explosion – whether it was the result of an air raid, missile attack or artillery shelling.
On Tuesday night, Hezbollah denied reports that Israel’s air force targeted a Hezbollah convoy on the Lebanon-Syria border.
The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to the Lebanese Shiite group, earlier said Badreddine was killed in an Israeli air strike but later removed the report.
Badreddine was one of four people being tried in absentia for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The 2005 suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others was one of the Middle East’s most dramatic political assassinations. The trial is ongoing near The Hague, Netherlands.
A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Hezbollah denies involvement in Hariri’s assassination and says the charges are politically motivated.
Badreddine’s death is the biggest blow to the militant group since the 2008 assassination of his predecessor, Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a bomb attack in Damascus.
After that, Badreddine, known among the group’s ranks as Zulfiqar, became Hezbollah’s top military commander and adviser to the group’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Badreddine’s nom de guerre, Zulfiqar, was the name of double-headed sword of Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the Shiite sect’s most sacred martyr.
“The message is that a martyred commander has joined the convoy of martyred leaders,” Hezbollah cabinet minister Hussein Haj Hassan said.
“He boosts us with his martyrdom with strength, glory, will and intention to continue the fight against the Zionist enemy and the takfiris (Sunni extremists) until victory is achieved, God willing.”
One of the group’s most shadowy figures, Badreddine was also known by aliases Elias Saab and Sami Issa.
He was only known to the public by a decades-old black-and-white photograph of a smiling young man wearing a suit until Hezbollah released a new image of him in military uniform.
The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions twice on Badreddine for his involvement in the Syrian war, in 2011 and in 2015. According to officials, Assad and Nassrallah coordinated Hezbollah’s actions in Syria on a weekly basis.