Lebanon’s so-called Hezbollah group said Friday its top military commander Mustafa Badreddine, who is one of the suspects in former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, was killed in Syria.
Hezbollah said in a statement that Badreddine was killed in a “huge explosion” that targeted one of its bases near Damascus International Airport.
Several other people were injured in the blast, it said, adding that it will further investigate to determine whether the explosion was caused by an air strike or shelling.
The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV that is close to the group said Badreddine was killed in an Israeli airstrike but later removed the report.
When asked by an interviewer on Israel Radio about possible Israeli involvement, cabinet minister Zeev Elkin, a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declined to comment.
Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, said Badreddine’s killing was good news for Israel but stopped short of saying Israel was responsible.
“This is good for Israel. Israel isn’t always responsible for this. We don’t know if Israel is responsible for this,” he 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
Badreddine, 55, became the group’s top military commander in 2008 after his predecessor Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in a bomb attack in the Syrian capital.
He 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.
For years, Badreddine masterminded military operations against Israel from Lebanon and overseas and managed to escape capture by Arab and Western governments by operating clandestinely.
In the past, Israel has killed some of Hezbollah’s top commanders.
“This martyrdom will be an incentive, same as of those of late commanders, for more jihad, sacrifices and continuity,” Hezbollah cabinet Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan told the group’s Al-Manar TV.
Badreddine was one of the people being tried in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in Hariri’s Feb. 2005 killing.
The suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others in a massive explosion on the Beirut seafront was one of the Middle East’s most dramatic political assassinations.
The trial began in 2014 near The Hague, Netherlands, and is ongoing.
Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
A U.S. 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. Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, is fighting in Syria in support of Bashar Assad.
Around 1,200 Hezbollah fighters are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian conflict. These include prominent fighters Samir Qantar and Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh.