Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group, said in a statement that Israel had “assassinated” one of its top leaders outside of his home south of Beirut last night, raising tensions in Lebanon just weeks after a massive car bombing outside Iran's embassy.
The group said that Hussein al-Laqis was killed upon returning home from work Tuesday at about midnight. A high-ranking security official told Lebanon's The Daily Star that unidentified, pistol-wielding gunmen shot Mr. al-Laqis in the head and the neck five times. The official said al-Laqis was in the parking lot of his residential complex, two miles south of Beruit, in his green Cherokee at the time of the shooting.
Hezbollah, in its statement, said Israel had tried to kill al-Laqis, who is reportedly close to the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah, on several occasions, but only succeeded this time. "The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame," the statement said. "This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this ugly crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance."
Israel denied involvement. "These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, according to the BBC. "They don't need evidence, they don't need facts. They just blame anything on Israel."
Hezbollah, which means Party of God, is comprised primarily of Shia Muslims who emerged as a military and political force with the help of Iran in the 1980s. They have been behind efforts to drive Israeli troops from Lebanon, fighting several wars including the 34-day war in 2006.
More recently they've been fighting with Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces in the ongoing civil war in Syria, which is bolstering the power of Hezbollah, as the Christian Science Monitor reported this week:
(It is) turning a new generation of young recruits into battle-hardened veterans. This experience should make them a more capable combat force in the event of another war against Hezbollah’s arch enemy – Israel. “I think that for Hezbollah the benefits of the experience is going to vastly outweigh the costs in terms of competency,” Andrew Exum, a former US Army officer in Afghanistan who recently served in as Defense Department adviser on Middle East policy, told the CSM.
Very little is known about al-Laqis. As the New York Times notes: “Because of the deep secrecy surrounding Hezbollah’s military structure and operations, it was not immediately clear what role (al-Laqis) played in the organization or how senior he was.”
But the Hezbollah statement says, according to the AP, that “he spent his entire life in the resistance from the time of inception until the last hours of his death.” His son is said to have died fighting Israel in the 2006 war.
His shooting comes a day after Mr. Nasrallah placed blame on Saudi Arabia for bombings last month outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut. The group initially pinned the blame on Israel. An obscure Sunni militant group later claimed responsibility.
On Wednesday, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman slammed Hezbollah for those accusations. “It is not allowed to ruin the historic ties with Saudi Arabia by making accusations against it without any evidence,” Mr. Sleiman said according to The Daily Star.