Hezbollah's top commander Mustafa Badreddine has been killed in an attack in Syria, the group said Friday, in a major blow to the organization that has played a key role in defending the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Hezbollah said "the great jihadi leader" Badreddine, whose nom de guerre was Zu al-Fiqar, had died in a "big explosion" that targeted one of its bases near Damascus airport. It said it was working to "define the nature of the explosion and its cause, and whether it was the result of an air strike, or missile or artillery."
It did not say when the attack happened.
Unconfirmed reports had said an Israeli air raid targetted a Hezbollah arms convoy on the border near the Beirut-Damascus highway Tuesday night. Hezbollah at the time denied the reports.
There was no immediate comment from Israel.
"After a life full of jihad, captivity, wounds, and qualitative achievements, Zu al-Fiqar concluded his life with martyrdom," Hezbollah said. "He said a few months ago, 'I will not come back from Syria, unless a martyr or carrying the flag of victory'... And he came back today as a martyr."
Pro-Hezbollah Al-Mayadeen television station had broke the news earlier in the day, initially saying he was killed in an Israeli air raid near Damascus. It later reported circumstances of his death were unclear.
Pro-Hezbollah activists on the social media paid homage to the slain commander, calling him a martyr and vowing reprisal.
Badreddine, 55, was on the U.S. terror list and had been one of five Hezbollah members indicted by a UN-backed special court in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He was one of the founders of Hezbollah in 1982 and had assumed a leading role in the group's military wing after the killing of his brother-in-law Imad Mughniyah in 2008.
Badreddine was sentenced to death in Kuwait for his role in bomb attacks there in 1983. He escaped from prison in Kuwait after Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, invaded the country in 1990.
A U.S. Department of the Treasury statement detailing sanctions against Badreddine last year said he was assessed to be responsible for the group's military operations in Syria since 2011.
The U.S. Treasury statement said Badreddine had accompanied Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during strategic coordination meetings with Assad in Damascus.
For years, Badreddine masterminded military operations against Israel and managed to escape capture by Arab and Western governments by operating clandestinely. He was wounded in a battle with Israeli forces near Beirut during the Jewish state's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Mughniyah's son, Jihad, was killed in an Israeli airstike in Syria in January 2015.
Hizbollah said it would hold Badreddine's funeral at 5:30 p.m. local time Friday in the southern Ghobeiri suburb.
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