Beirut - A senior commander for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was gunned down on Wednesday outside his home in southern Beirut, security officials said. Hezbollah blamed Israel for the killing, something officials there quickly denied.
Hezbollah immediately announced the death of Hassan al-Laqis and described him as one of the founding members of the group, suggesting he was a high-level commander close to the Shi’ite party's leadership. It said in a statement al-Laqis was killed as he returned home from work around midnight.
A Lebanese security official and another close to the Shi’ite group said assailants shot al-Laqis with a pistol equipped with a silencer at close range as he got out of his car outside of the residential building where he lived in the Hadath neighbourhood, about 3km southwest of Beirut.
He was shot five times in the head and neck, the Lebanese official said. Footage from the scene broadcast on Hezbollah's al-Manar television station showed the parking lot stained with muddied footprints that led to a nearby small olive grove. Yellow police tape blocked off the area.
Al-Laqis was rushed to a nearby hospital but died early on Wednesday from his wounds, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Israel denies involvement
The Lebanese state news agency later published a photograph it identified as al-Laqis. The image showed a man who appeared to be in his mid-40s, with neatly cut black hair and a greying close-cropped beard, wearing beige and khaki military clothing.
The Hezbollah statement accused Israel of being responsible for the killing. It said Israel tried to kill him several times, but had failed.
"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."
Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor denied Israeli involvement.
"Israel has nothing to do with this incident," Palmor said. "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."
Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister of strategic affairs and intelligence, later told Israel Radio he wouldn't comment on "rumours."
"We are used to this habit that with almost everything there is a tendency first to blame Israel," Steinitz said.
Hezbollah has fought several wars against Israel. Al-Laqis' son died fighting Israel in the month-long 2006 war. Israel's spy service has been suspected of assassinating Hezbollah commanders for more than two decades.