World News

Israel says 2016 killing of top Hezbollah commander was inside job

NETANYA, Israel (Reuters) - The chief of Israel’s armed forces said on Tuesday the death last year of the top Hezbollah military commander was an assassination by the Iranian-backed Lebanese group itself.

Israel's Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot delivers a speech during a Strategic Dialogue Conference in Netanya, Israel March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Hezbollah has maintained the commander, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed near Damascus by artillery fire from insurgent groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But a war monitoring group said no rebel shelling occurred in the area at that time.

“According to (media) reports, he was killed by his superiors, which points to the extent of the cruelty, complexity and tension between Hezbollah and its patron, Iran,” Israeli Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot said.

“These reports corresponded with the information we have and with our assessment,” he said in a speech in central Israel.

Al Arabiya news channel said earlier this month that Iran, which like Hezbollah has forces in Syria supporting Assad in its civil war, was unhappy with Badreddine and wanted him removed from the battlefield.

Eisenkot did not give any details on the circumstances of Badreddine’s death, which was reported in May 2016.

A senior Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters last week that Badreddine and Iran were at odds over “how to wage the Syrian campaign”. A meeting was arranged near the Damascus airport, where a Hezbollah security official shot him dead.

In Beirut, Mohammed Afif, a Hezbollah spokesman, said Israel’s allegations were “lies that do not deserve comment”.

The U.S. government believed Badreddine, 55, was in charge of Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria. He was one of five Hezbollah members indicted by the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the 2005 killing of Rafik al-Hariri, one of Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni Muslim figures.

Hezbollah denied any involvement and said the charges were politically motivated.

For years, Badreddine masterminded military operations against Israel from Lebanon and overseas and managed to escape capture by Arab and Western governments.

Israel, which fought Hezbollah in a 2006 war and has targeted the group in Syria over alleged arms transfers, had called his death good news but stopped short of claiming responsibility.

In a letter, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif extended condolences “for the martyrdom of this great jihadist ... who embodied devotion and vigor and was legendary in his defense of high Islamic goals and his defense of the Lebanese people who resist oppression and terrorism.”

Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editiing by Larry King