Hezbollah commander Hassan Lakkis killed in Beirut

The BBC's Jim Muir at the scene: "Neighbours reported hearing gunfire"

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A senior commander of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah has been killed near Beirut, the group says.

Hassan Lakkis was killed near his home in Hadath - 7km (4.3 miles) south-east of the Lebanese capital. He has been buried in the town of Baalbek.

Hezbollah blamed Israel for his death but Israel has denied the accusation.

Little is known publicly about Lakkis, but he was reputedly close to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and an expert in weapons manufacturing.

Thousands of people turned out for Lakkis' funeral in Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold in eastern Lebanon.

Funeral procession of Hassan Lakkis in Baalbek (4 December) Lakkis' coffin, draped in the Hezbollah flag, was carried through the streets of Baalbek

The news comes a day after Hassan Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia was behind last month's bombings outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut.

Analysis

It is often the case with Hezbollah figures that their significance and even their identity only begins to become apparent after their deaths, and Hassan Lakkis was no exception.

Hezbollah-watchers believe he was a member of a unit within Hezbollah which co-ordinates with Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as being a weapons and explosives expert.

One of his colleagues, Ghaleb Awali, was killed by a car bomb in southern Beirut in 2004, an incident which Hezbollah also blamed on Israel.

Lakkis's death comes in the context of repeated attacks on Hezbollah's heartland in Beirut's southern suburbs which are seen as connected to the movement's involvement alongside Syrian government forces in their struggle with mainly Sunni rebels.

But Lakkis might be an unlikely target for Sunni militants angered by Hezbollah's role in Syria.

Israel usually does not comment on assassinations in which it is believed to have had a hand, such as the killing of another senior Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in a bomb explosion in Damascus in 2008. But on this occasion it adamantly denied killing Hassan Lakkis.

Iran is a major backer of Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to Syria to back the government of Bashar al-Assad.

The conflict in Syria has increased sectarian tensions in its smaller neighbour.

Gunmen 'lying in wait'

A statement issued by Hezbollah on Wednesday said Lakkis was killed as he returned home from work around midnight. The group said Israel had tried to kill him several times previously.

Neighbours at the quiet residential complex where Lakkis lived said that he arrived home alone shortly before midnight and was just getting out of his car in the parking space beneath his apartment block when he was shot several times in the head at close range by attackers apparently lying in wait.

They said two men were seen running away across some waste ground nearby. The neighbours had no idea that he worked for Hezbollah.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says the identity of the attackers remains for the time being at least, a mystery, with much more remaining to be known about why he would have been a target for assassination - and by whom.

Israel denied any involvement in the death.

Who was Hezbollah's Hassan Lakkis?

Hezbollah handout picture of Lakkis
  • A commander in the militant group, said to have been close to leader Hassan Nasrallah
  • Reported to have trained in Iran in warfare and the manufacture of weapons, explosives and booby traps
  • Possibly a member of a unit within Hezbollah which co-ordinates with Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza
  • Thought to be in his mid-40s
  • One of his sons was killed fighting Israel in 2006 conflict

"These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. "They don't need evidence, they don't need facts. They just blame anything on Israel."

Hezbollah - or the Party of God - is a powerful political and military organisation in Lebanon made up mainly of Shia Muslims.

It emerged with financial backing from Iran in the early 1980s and began a struggle to drive Israeli troops from Lebanon.

Hezbollah fought a destructive 34-day war with Israel in 2006. The group said that one of Lakkis's sons had been killed in that conflict.

Dr Ronen Bergman, a writer on military intelligence affairs for Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, told the BBC Lakkis "became known in Hezbollah as the guy in charge of manufacturing sophisticated weaponry, explosives, booby traps, he was a technical guy".

He added: "Hassan was the leading figure who received Iranian guidance, he studied in Iran the issues of microwarfare, terrorism, counter-terrorism, and he brought this knowledge with him to Hezbollah, so he was one of these channels through which the Iranians gave Hezbollah their assistance."

Lakkis was attacked in the car park of the building where he lived Lakkis was attacked in the car park of the building where he lived
Photographer at scene Some sources say Lakkis was shot with a silenced gun
Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags, as they parade during a rally to mark the 13th day of Ashoura Hezbollah blamed Israel for the killing - a charge Israel strongly denied
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