Hezbollah said Wednesday that one of its commanders, Hassan al-Laqqis, was killed outside his Beirut home overnight in an attack it blamed on Israel.
He was rushed to a nearby hospital but died early Wednesday from his wounds, officials told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The Lebanese state news agency later published a photograph it identified as Laqqis. The image showed a man who appeared to be in his mid-40s, with neatly cut black hair and a graying close-cropped beard, wearing beige-and-khaki military clothing.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor denied any Israeli involvement, saying Hezbollah has often automatically blamed Israel for such incidents in the past. "This has strictly nothing to do Israel. Hezbollah has made a fool of itself in the past with these automatic and groundless accusations against Israel … If they are looking for explanations as to what is happening to them, they should examine their own actions."
Laqqis was believed to have been one of Hezbollah's senior commanders and head of its weapons program.
A group calling itself "The Free Sunnis of Baalbek Battalion" on Wednesday afternoon claimed responsibility on its Twitter account for the assassination.
"The Free Sunnis of Baalbek Battalion officially claims the heroic jihadist operation of assassinating the leading member in the party of the devil [Hezbollah] Hassan Houlo al-Laqis in [Hezbollah's] home ground," the group wrote on Twitter.
"The jihadist operation was implemented by free Sunni lions from Lebanon," another tweet wrote.
Hezbollah said in a statement that Laqqis was killed at around midnight in the southern Hadath district of the Lebanese capital. It gave no detail of the operation but said "the accusation is directed at the enemy, Israel."
An unnamed Hezbollah source was quoted as saying Laqqis had been shot in the head with a silenced gun while in his car in what he described as a professional operation.
"One of the leaders of the Islamic Resistance Hajj Hassan al-Laqqis was assassinated outside his house in Saint Therese, Hadath, as he returned from work last night at around 12 a.m.," the statement said. "The Israeli enemy tried to kill Laqqis many times … but its attempts have failed until this foul assassination overnight… The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame. This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this ugly crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance," the terror group threatened.
The statement described Laqqis as a "jihadist and a leader, who sacrificed his life for the resistance." Laqqis will be buried in the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek later today.
He had been with Hezbollah since its first days in the 1980s.
The Voice of Lebanon radio station later reported that the unknown assailants targeted Laqqis in his residence's parking lot.
Lebanese security officials said assailants opened fire on Laqqis with an assault rifle while he was in his car. He was in the parking lot of the residential building where he lived. He was rushed to a nearby hospital but died early Wednesday from his wounds, the officials said.
Footage from the scene broadcast by Hezbollah's Al Manar television on Wednesday showed two bullet marks in a wall and muddy footprints it said had been left by possibly more than one assailant.
Laqqis' son, Ali, was killed during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.