BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Monday buried a commander described as the group’s most important military figure to be killed in the four-year-long Syrian war.
Hassan al-Haj was killed in Idlib province in northwestern Syria, where the Iranian-backed group is fighting Syrian rebels in an offensive in support of President Bashar al-Assad and backed by Russian air strikes.
He was buried with military honors in the southern Lebanese village of al-Luwaizeh on Monday. Pall-bearers dressed in camouflage military fatigues processed slowly to solemn trumpet music with the coffin draped in a yellow Hezbollah flag.
The Syria conflict has exacted a heavy toll on Hezbollah, with many hundreds of its fighters killed in the war.
“He is the most important (Hezbollah) figure killed in battles in Syria since the start of the war,” a senior Lebanese official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The coffin was driven through towns in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s stronghold, in a convoy of black cars and ambulances. It was then carried for burial through his hometown of al-Luwaizeh in the Tuffah region, followed by a crowd of thousands of funeral-goers.
“You were not just an official, nor merely a director or chief of operations. You were a leader of pure quality, an example and model for all your brothers and beloved mujahideen,” senior Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hashem Safieddin said in a eulogy broadcast by Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV.
In January, an Israeli helicopter attack killed six Hezbollah members including a commander - Mohamad Issa - and the son of the group’s late military commander Imad Moughniyah.
An Iranian general was also killed in that attack.
The Shi’ite movement’s support of Assad in the war across the border has been crucial to his survival.
In recent days Hezbollah has helped recapture territory from insurgents in Hama and Idlib provinces where Russian forces backing Assad have been bombing.
Hezbollah says it is fighting in Syria for reasons including the defense of Lebanon from hardline Sunni Islamist groups that are battling Assad. But its Lebanese opponents say its role there has triggered Sunni Islamist violence at home.
Al-Manar said Haj, born in 1965, had in his 20s been a top commander in southern Lebanon in battles against Israel.
“He participated in most of the jihad operations, especially in the 1980s when he was commander of the Tuffah region” it said, referring to him as “the martyr commander Abu Mohammed”.
Al-Manar rolled video of Haj firing a Kalashnikov assault rifle and other weapons, as well as older archive footage of him praying on the battlefield.
Clerics processed down the hill in to join swelling ranks of mourners, as Hezbollah boy scouts stood to attention with wreaths and black banners.
Mourners waving Hezbollah flags threw rice on the coffin and recited Shi’ite Muslim prayers for the dead invoking the Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Tom Perry