A pro-government Syrian paper on Sunday accused the Israeli Mossad of being behind the killing of a top research director at a military agency linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
The al-Watan newspaper reported on its website that Aziz Azbar, of the Scientific Studies and Research Center, died in a blast targeting his car Saturday night, in Syria’s Hama province.
It said Israel was suspected of carrying out the attack. Israeli officials, past and present, refused to comment on the accusations.
There was no official comment from Syria either.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sought to downplay the possibility of Israeli involvement.
“Every day in the Middle East there are hundreds of explosions and settling of scores. Every time they try to place the blame on us. So we won’t take this too seriously,” he told Hadashot News.
An insurgent group calling itself the Abu Amara Brigades claimed responsibility for the operation. The group has previously claimed attacks targeting officials and militia commanders inside government territory.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syria war through local contacts, also reported Azbar’s death. It said he specialized in developing rocket systems at the center’s Masyaf facility in Hama.
Israel’s Hadashot TV news said Sunday night he was in charge of a project improving the range and accuracy of the regime’s Scud missiles. Reports have also indicated an Iranian missile operation at the site.
During the first Gulf War, Iraq fired dozens of the Russian-made missiles at Israel.
At the outset of the war Syria was believed to have had some 200 Russian and North Korean made Scuds, and several hundred more of a locally produced version. It is not clear how many they have now.
The Israeli TV news report described him as “a person of the utmost interest to Israel” and said he had close ties to the Assad regime.
Azbar’s driver was also killed in the blast, according to al-Watan and the Observatory.
Hadashot said the bomb was placed in the headrest of his car seat. The same method was used to kill Hezbollah global terror chief Imad Mughniyeh, who was reportedly killed in a joint US, Israeli operation in 2008.
Israel has been blamed for the killing of several scientists in recent years, including two Hamas engineers in the last 18 months.
Images showed hundreds of people attending Azbar’s funeral on Sunday in Syria.
Western and Israeli intelligence agencies have long linked the SSRC to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
In April, the US, Britain and France carried out joint airstrikes against the center’s Damascus facilities in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces near the capital.
Israel is believed to be behind airstrikes targeting the center’s facilities in Masyaf last month and last September. Israel has been carrying out strikes inside Syria to prevent advanced weapons transfers to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian government.
Israel has also vowed to prevent Iran from set up a permanent presence in Syria, including missile factories.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview with Russia’s state-controlled NTV television channel in June that his government had gotten rid of all its chemical weapons in 2013 and that allegations of their use were a pretext for invasion by other countries.
A UN investigative body determined that the government had used the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others.
The US leveled sanctions against 271 employees of the SSRC less than three weeks after the attack, saying the agency was responsible for “developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.” Azbar was not on the list of targeted individuals.
The US and its allies also blamed government forces for a sarin gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus in 2013 that killed around 1,000 people.
The US government first leveled sanctions against the agency in 2005. France, the EU and the U.K. also have imposed sanctions on the SSRC.
Syria has been in a civil war since state security forces cracked down on demonstrations calling for Assad’s ouster in 2011. At least 400,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million people displaced in the violence.