Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah on Wednesday accused Israel of assassinating a top operative outside his home overnight.
A statement released by Hezbollah said Hassan al-Laqis was killed near his house in Beirut as he was coming home from work.
Laqis was at one point one of the main commanders of Hezbollah’s rocket division, which fired hundreds of missiles at Israel. According to reports in the Lebanese media, Israel tried to assassinate him during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Voice of Lebanon Radio reported he was in his Jeep Cherokee in front of his home when he was killed. Lebanese security officials said assailants opened fire on Laqis with an assault rifle while he was in his car, around midnight. He was in the parking lot of the residential building where he lived, in the Hadath neighborhood, some two miles (three kilometers) southwest of Beirut, they said.
According to Lebanese media, three assailants were involved in the attack.
Laqis was rushed to a nearby hospital but died early Wednesday from his wounds, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The Hezbollah statement accused Israel of being responsible for the killing.
“Israel is automatically held completely responsible for this heinous crime,” the statement said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman 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.”
Hezbollah said Laqis, a senior official in the organization, had been an Israeli target and that Israel had made several attempts on his life in the past.
The statement warned that Israel would “bear full responsibility and all consequences” for the hit.
However, a previously unknown group, the “Free Sunni Brigades in Baalbek,” claimed responsibility for the attack in a Twitter message.
The Hezbollah statement said Laqis had “dedicated his life to resistance.” He was reportedly close to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
According to Israeli intelligence analyst Ronen Solomon, Laqis was in charge of procuring Iranian armaments for Hezbollah, including high tech communications equipment, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Solomon said the hit may have been carried out by a third party, indicating the fact that Laqis was left alive after the attack indicated it could have been the work of amateur gunmen.
Laqis was Hezbollah’s chief procurement officer during the 1990s, according to national security researcher Matthew Levitt, whose new book “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God” examines the group’s activities.
According to Levitt, Laqis played a role in funding Hezbollah activities in Canada in 1994. One of his operatives, Mohamad Dbouk, told US investigators in 2001 he worked under Laqis.
Laqis’s son was killed during Israel’s three-week military engagement with Lebanon in 2006.
The statement from Hezbollah was unusual in its haste to place blame on Israel, as Hezbollah normally waits several days before pointing an accusatory finger. It also unusually included a picture of Laqis, who was not widely known before his death.
Israel’s spy service has been accused of assassinating Hezbollah commanders for more than two decades.
In 2005, Hezbollah blamed Israel when Imad Mughniyeh, a top military commander, was killed by a bomb that ripped through his car in Damascus.
According to the Hezbollah statement, Laqis will be laid to rest in Baalbek, near the Syrian border.
Hezbollah has recently come under pressure in its home base in south Beirut, with a series of attacks thought to be tied to the group’s support for Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria.
In the past, Hezbollah has issued warnings to its senior officials concerning plots by Sunni groups to attack them.
On Tuesday, Nasrallah gave an address in which he blamed Saudi Arabia for being behind a twin bombing outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last month.
Mitch Ginsburg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.