JERUSALEM (REUTERS, AFP, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Israel's defence minister said on Sunday (April 22) a Palestinian scientist shot dead in Malaysia was a rocket expert and "no saint", but dismissed suggestions by Hamas that Israel's Mossad spy agency assassinated him.
Two men on a motorcycle fired 10 shots at Dr Fadi Mohammad al-Batsh, an engineering lecturer, in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday (April 21), killing him on the spot, the city's police chief, Mazlan Lazim said.
He was walking from his highrise apartment to dawn prayers at a local mosque in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Gombak when he was shot by two gunmen riding a motorcycle, according to officials.
An autopsy on his body was being carried out on Sunday.
Hamas, an Islamist militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, said one of its members had been assassinated in Malaysia. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Mossad had been behind past attempts to kill Palestinian scientists, and the attack on Batsh "follows this sequence."
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said it was likely that Batsh was killed as part of an internal Palestinian dispute.
"We heard about it in the news. The terrorist organisations blame every assassination on Israel - we're used to that,"Lieberman told Israel Radio.
"The man was no saint and he didn't deal with improving infrastructure in Gaza - he was involved in improving rockets'accuracy ... We constantly see a settling of accounts between various factions in the terrorist organisations and I suppose that is what happened in this case."
TASK FORCE FORMED
Malaysian police chief Mohamad Fuzi Bin Harun said on Sunday that a task force has been formed to investigate the killing but would not speculate on the motive or whether foreign assassins were involved.
Photos of the two suspects provided by witnesses showed they looked like Europeans but police could not confirm they were in fact from Europe, he told a news conference. When asked if there was evidence of foreign involvement in the killing, he said: "It is still premature to conclude.
"We want to ensure a complete probe. We are still investigating the motive. I urge people not to make any conclusion."
No arrests have been made so far and the murder weapon has not been recovered, he said as he appealed for witnesses to come forward.
He also denied that cops took almost an hour to respond to the assassination, as claimed in a video uploaded by a Facebook user. According to Fuzi, the Facebook user had posted a viral YouTube video which featured a man claiming he was present when the shooting took place.
"The video, which was in Arabic, was later translated and posted on Facebook by another person," he said. "He made an error in the translation saying that the man had tried to call the police 43 times."
Palestinian representative to Malaysia Anwar al-Asha said Batsh's body will be taken back to the Palestinian territories for burial after it is handed back to the family. "We are now talking to the handling company to make the arrangements," he told AFP.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had said on Saturday the suspects in the killing, who fled the scene, were believed to be Europeans with links to a foreign intelligence agency, state news agency Bernama reported.
He added that Batsh was active in pro-Palestinian non-governmental organisations, describing him as an expert in electrical engineering and rocket-building.
He could have been seen as "a liability for a country that is an enemy of Palestine," Zahid was quoted as saying by Bernama.
LECTURER SPECIALISING IN POWER ENGINEERING
Batsh was a lecturer at Universiti Kuala Lumpur, specialising in power engineering, according to the university.
He leaves behind a wife and three young children. He had lived in Malaysia for the past 10 years.
Batsh's uncle Jamal al-Batsh, speaking to Reuters in the Gaza Strip, said he believed Mossad was behind the killing because "Israel knows Palestine will be liberated by scientists".
Mohammad Shedad, 17, a student and a relative of the victim, also blamed Mossad for the killing. "It is definitely the work of Mossad. Fadi is a very clever person, anyone who is clever is a threat to Israel," he told AFP outside the victim's Malaysian apartment.
"Fadi is a Hamas member and knows how to make rockets. So (Israel) think he is dangerous."
Ahmad Abu Bakar, 33, a foreign student studying in Malaysia, said he had known the victim for two years. "He is friendly and he preaches good things. He never preached any hatred. I am shocked by the killing," he said.
Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, fired thousands of rockets at Israel, most of them intercepted by an anti-missile system, during a 2014 Gaza war that included devastating Israeli attacks in the enclave of two million Palestinians.
In recent weeks, tensions have been running high at the Gaza-Israel border as Palestinians have ramped up protests demanding the right to return to homes that are now in Israel.
Israel's use of live fire, killing at least 35 Palestinians, has drawn international criticism. Israel says it is protecting its borders and takes such action when protesters come too close to the border fence.
Batsh's death was the second high-profile killing of a foreigner in Malaysia in just over a year.
In February 2017 assassins smeared the banned VX nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, killing him within minutes.