BAALBAK, Lebanon — A senior member of Hezbollah blamed groups sympathetic to Syria’s rebels for the assassination early Wednesday of a top Hezbollah military commander as the commander was returning home from work.
Hassan al Laqis was shot repeatedly in the head and neck with small-caliber pistols, apparently equipped with silencers, in a southern Beirut neighborhood, according to Lebanese security officials and Hezbollah members.
The Lebanon-based militant group initially accused Israel in the killing – a charge that country denied – but speaking at Laqis’ funeral in the afternoon, Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek, a senior Hezbollah official, linked the assassination to recent attacks that Hezbollah and Lebanese government officials have pinned on Syrian rebels and their Sunni Muslim supporters.
“The people responsible for the martyr’s assassination are the same ones behind the explosions in Dahiyeh’s al Roueiss and the foiled car-bomb attack in Dahiyeh’s Maamoura,” Yazbek said, referring to bombings in southern Beirut’s Shiite Muslim suburb. He then accused the Lebanese government of failing to protect the Shiite community and said that failure justified Hezbollah’s recent security measures.
“The security events in Lebanon are the state’s responsibility, but when the state abandons its responsibility, it is up to us to protect our people and families,” he said.
What steps Hezbollah might take in response to the killing weren’t immediately clear. The assassination was the latest in spiraling violence in Lebanon tied to the civil war in Syria, where Hezbollah fighters have assumed a key supporting role in backing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A previously unknown group, the Brigades of the Free Sunnis of Baalbak, took responsibility for the killing, describing Laqis as “the architect of the massacre of Qusayr,” a reference to last spring’s bitter fight for control of a Syrian city on the border with Lebanon that had been a key conduit for rebels smuggling people and weapons into Syria before pro-Assad forces retook it. Hezbollah played a crucial role in the fight to retake the city, which had been in rebel hands for nearly two years.
Laqis was repeatedly described on Hezbollah-loyal television stations as the group’s senior military commander in Syria until recently, and his funeral – just hours after his death, as Islam requires – was a tribute to his position.
Hundreds of Hezbollah members and their families gathered in the Bekaa Valley city of Baalbak in eastern Lebanon to bury Laqis. Dozens of members of Hezbollah’s military wing were present, many in official uniforms, others in the black military gear common to the group.
Family members tearfully greeted mourners, who paid their respects in a receiving line that stretched scores deep during a freezing rainstorm that drenched the scene in cold water and mud, obscuring the grave markers of previously slain fighters despite the efforts of boys who repeatedly rinsed off the graves to keep them visible amid the muck.
While many of the older mourners were crying, one unit of Hezbollah fighters could be seen leaving the funeral in reasonably good cheer despite the loss of their commander.
“Death has become normal for all these kids,” said one resident of a Hezbollah-controlled area who has family members in the group. “They look like they’re joking around, but really it doesn’t bother them that much because they’ve all accepted this is going to happen. They died the day they joined.”
That statement was highlighted by the 20 or so new graves adorned with pictures of very young fighters who’d died in Hezbollah operations in Syria, which were scattered among the graves of those killed in the earliest days of Hezbollah in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as a number from the group’s 34-day war with Israel in 2006. Laqis’ son, who died in that war, was among them.
Hezbollah’s strong military backing for the Syrian regime continues to strain relations with Lebanon’s Sunni community, which is distrustful not only of Hezbollah’s Shiite sect but also of its ties to the Arab world’s rival, Iran. Lebanese Sunnis have supported the anti-Assad rebels, housing tens of thousands of refugees from the fighting as well as supplying men, money and weapons to the rebels.
This schism has paralyzed a Lebanese state whose people generally consider it ineffectual even under the best conditions. The northern city of Tripoli has seen near-constant violence over the last week as pro- and anti-Assad groups have squared off in a series of street battles. Lebanese security authorities recently have grown concerned that rebel fighters have been pushed off the Syrian battlefield and might be attempting to open a new front in Lebanon.
.Laqis’ assassination came just two weeks after twin suicide bombings in Beirut targeted the Iranian embassy there, killing 23 people, including Iran’s cultural attache.
On Tuesday night, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah directly accused Saudi Arabia, a strong backer of the Syrian rebels, of fostering violence against Hezbollah in Lebanon and said he believed that attacks on Shiites in the name of al Qaida-linked groups were a program led by the Saudi intelligence services.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero