Hezbollah blames Israel for killing senior leader

BEIRUT (AFP) - Hezbollah on Wednesday blamed Israel for murdering one of its top leaders near Beirut at a time of soaring tensions in Lebanon linked to the war in neighbouring Syria.

The dead man, identified as Hassan Hawlo al-Lakiss, was the group's most senior figure to be assassinated since Imad Mughniyeh in a Damascus bombing in 2008, when Hezbollah again blamed Israel.

Lakiss, virtually unknown before his death was made public, belonged to Hezbollah's secretive senior leadership.

"The Islamic resistance announces the death of one of its leaders, the martyr Hassan Hawlo al-Lakiss, who was assassinated near his house in the Hadath region" east of Beirut, Hezbollah said.

"Direct accusation is aimed of course against the Israeli enemy which had tried to eliminate our martyred brother again and again and in several places but had failed, until yesterday (Tuesday) evening.

"This enemy must bear full responsibility for all the consequences of this heinous crime," Hezbollah's Al-Manar television channel said.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor dismissed the allegation as "yet another Pavlovian response from Hezbollah, which makes automatic accusations before even thinking about what's actually happened".

"Israel has nothing to do with this," Palmor said.

Damascus echoed Hezbollah's accusations, adding that it condemned the "terrorist, cowardly" assassination.

Two previously unknown groups identifying themselves as Sunnis issued separate claims of responsibility.

The Free Sunnis Brigade of Baalbek called the killing revenge for "abuses" of Sunnis in Baalbek, a Hezbollah bastion in eastern Lebanon and Lakiss's native city.

Ansar al-Umma al-Islamiya said it murdered Lakiss because he was "Hezbollah's field commander and directly responsible for the massacre in Qusayr", a Syrian rebel town that fell to regime forces in June with Hezbollah's help.

Hezbollah television said Lakiss was shot repeatedly with a silenced handgun after parking at the building where he lived, adding that there was more than one assailant.

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