BEIRUT/BAALBEK, Lebanon: In yet another blow to Hezbollah this year, a senior party commander was assassinated south of Beirut overnight Wednesday, signaling ongoing warfare between the secretive Lebanese group and its archfoe Israel.
One of Hezbollah’s top covert operatives, Hassan Hawlo al-Lakkis played a key role in advancing the group’s technological capabilities in its fight against Israel and had brushes with death on many occasions, sources told The Daily Star.
“Lakkis was involved in scientific development and played a key role in developing Hezbollah’s unmanned aerial vehicles program,” a source close to the Lebanese group told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.
A security source who spoke on condition of anonymity said Lakkis was also in charge of smuggling arms to Gaza and Egypt.
The source close to the Lebanese party said Lakkis was clearly a top target for Israel, saying the Hezbollah figure was on “Israel’s top 50 most wanted list.”
Lakkis was shot in the head and the neck five times outside his home in Hadath, a high-ranking security official told The Daily Star, adding that at least one unidentified gunman, using a 9-mm silenced gun, carried out the operation.
Lakkis was parking his green Cherokee in Bloc A of residential complex 1660 in the St. Therese neighborhood at the time of the shooting, the official added.
In critical condition, the Hezbollah commander was rushed around midnight to the nearby Rasoul al-Aazam hospital where he died from his wounds at around 3 a.m., the official added.
The security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a probe had been launched, adding that police are examining the serial number on the bullet casings to identify the manufacturer. Forensic experts arrived to the scene as well.
Hezbollah officials have been targets of assassinations in the past. Top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated by a car bomb near the Syrian capital in February 2008. Hezbollah held Israel responsible for Mughniyeh’s killing.
The security source maintained that Tuesday’s assassination bore the hallmarks of an Israeli hit.
“Modus operandi indicates it was an Israeli job,” the source said.
Lakkis, according to the source close to Hezbollah, had also survived numerous attempts on his life in the past, including during the July-August 2006 War between Lebanon and Israel.
“Lakkis escaped with his life on nine occasions, including twice in south Lebanon,” the source said, adding that Tyre and Sidon were just two cities where the official had brushed with death.
“Lakkis’ car was targeted on the old Sidon road during an air raid in 2006 just minutes after he switched on his dad’s phone,” the source said, referring to the latter assassination attempt. Hezbollah blamed Israel for the assassination and said it “should bear full responsibility and all the consequences of this heinous crime and its repeated targeting of dear resistance leaders and cadres.”
Israel swiftly denied the accusations, saying Hezbollah’s accusation was a knee jerk reaction.
“ Israel has nothing to do with this incident,” said Yigal Palmor, Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.
“These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah. They don’t need evidence, they don’t need facts, they just blame anything on Israel,” he said.
Israeli daily Haaretz described the killing as “a clean and especially professional assassination.”
A hitherto unknown group, the “Free Sunni Brigades in Baalbek” claimed responsibility for “this heroic, jihadist operation.”
In a tweet, the group hailed the assassination of “a commander in the Satan party [Hezbollah] Hassan Lakkis.”
Later, another unknown group called the “Brigade of Islamic Nation Partisans” claimed responsibility for the operation. It claimed that Lakkis was responsible for what it described the “massacre of Qusair.”
Hezbollah played a major role in driving Syrian rebels out of the strategic Syrian town of Qusair in June. Its fighting alongside the Syrian army has sparked the ire of Syrian rebels, with some groups threatening to target the party in Lebanon in retaliation.
In a statement, Hezbollah described Lakkis as “a Mujahid, self-sacrificing and a leader who loved martyrdom.”
“He spent all his youth with the honorable resistance – since its early days until the final hour,” it said.
It said Lakkis’ son was killed during the August-July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Hezbollah held the funeral of Lakkis later in his hometown of Baalbek in the northern Bekaa Valley. Hundreds of party supporters, MPs and senior officials marched under rain, some weeping. Hezbollah fighters, wearing military outfits, carried the coffin, wrapped with the group’s flag.
“We will not bow and we will keep our heads high, this martyrdom is a blessing from God ... We will continue to confront tyrants,” said Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, a senior Hezbollah official, during the funeral.
Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s main allies, condemned the assassination, holding Israel responsible for the operation.
Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi said such a “cowardly act” would not prevent the resistance from fighting Israel.
“While we adjoin this heroic martyr to the convoy of martyrs who sacrificed their lives to serve their nation and its sacred cause, mainly the Palestinian cause, we believe that these cowardly acts by the Zionist enemy and its agents would only make the resistance more determined to achieve its goals of eliminating [Israel] from existence,” Iran’s envoy said in a message to Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.
The Syrian government said in a statement that Israel was fully responsible for the assassination of the top Hezbollah commander. “The assassination of brother and struggler Hassan Lakkis is part of targeting the front of resistance and defiance that confronts the Zionist project.”
The killing drew condemnation from Lebanese leaders as well. In a statement, President Michel Sleiman condemned the assassination of Lakkis and said the killing aims at stirring strife in Lebanon.
“This crime is among the Israeli goals to inflame sectarian conflicts,” said Sleiman as he called on the Lebanese to be wary of such schemes.
Sleiman asked acting-Public Prosecutor Samir Hammoud to make the utmost effort to uncover perpetrators and refer them to judiciary.
MPs attending the weekly meeting of Speaker Nabih Berri with lawmakers quoted the speaker as saying the “method used in the assassination is an Israeli method.” He also stressed the need for exercising vigilance in this phase.
For his part, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt slammed the killing of Lakkis, calling on the judiciary to take action to reveal the identity of the perpetrators.
“I condemn political assassinations in principle and I condemn all explosions and terrorism which happened in the Beirut southern suburbs along with the blind violence in the city of Tripoli,” Jumblatt said in remarks Wednesday.
Former premier Fouad Siniora, head of the Future parliamentary bloc, decried the assassination in a statement. “We [the Future bloc] have always and still do completely reject the use of violence and we condemn the assassination of any citizen.”