Top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine has been killed in an attack in Syria, the Lebanese Shi’ite group said on Friday, the biggest blow to the Iranian-backed organization since its military chief was killed in 2008.
Badreddine, 55, was one of the highest ranking officials in the group, and was believed by the U.S. government to be responsible for Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria, where it is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The killing of Badreddine, a brother-in-law of late Hezbollah military commander Imad Moughniyah, is the latest big loss sustained by Hezbollah and Iran in Syria despite Russian military intervention in support of Assad and his allies.
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 Badreddine had been killed in a big explosion targeting one of its bases near Damascus airport, and an investigation was underway into whether it was caused by an air strike, a missile attack or artillery bombardment. It did not say when he was killed.
Nawar al-Saheli, a Hezbollah member of Lebanon’s parliament, said Israel was behind the killing.
“This is an open war and we should not preempt the investigation but certainly Israel is behind this,” he told the Hezbollah-controlled al-Manar TV station. “The resistance will carry out its duties at the appropriate time.”
The Lebanese TV station al-Mayadeen reported Badreddine had been killed in an attack by Israel, which has struck Hezbollah targets in Syria several times since the conflict began in 2011.
There was no immediate response from Israel, which deems Hezbollah its most potent enemy and worries that it is becoming entrenched on its Syrian front and is acquiring more advanced weaponry.
Hezbollah, a political and military movement which is Lebanon’s most powerful group, has 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.