The Shiite militant group Hezbollah has blamed Sunni extremists, not Israel, for the death of its top commander in Syria this week. The Lebanese group's battle-hardened fighters have helped prop up the Assad regime.
Mustafa Badreddine, the Lebanese movement's top commander, was killed by rebel artillery near Damascus and not by an Israeli airstrike, Hezbollah said in a statement on Saturday.
"The blast that targeted one of our positions near Damascus International Airport, leading to the martyrdom of our brother commander Sayyid Mustafa Badreddine, was caused by artillery shelling carried out by takfiri Sunni extremist groups positioned in the area," the statement read.
"Takfiri" refers to Sunni Muslim extremists who, among other things, believe Shiites are apostates and should be killed.
Badreddine, who led Hezbollah's forces in Syria, was laid to rest in the militant group's southern Beirut stronghold on Friday (pictured) after dying from an explosion on Tuesday. Iran-backed Hezbollah has several thousand fighters in Syria battling rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The statement said the commander's death only reaffirmed Hezbollah's will to fight against "criminal gangs" in Syria until they are defeated.
Media close to Hezbollah had earlier suggested an Israeli airstrike had killed Badreddine.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group with activists on the ground in Syria, cast doubt on Hezbollah's claim that rebels were behind his death.
The monitoring group said sources in the Syrian regime and activists had not reported any artillery fire from eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb some seven kilometers (four miles) from the Damascus airport, in the days leading up to his death.
A Syrian security source told the AFP news agency that no aircraft were heard before the explosion.
Israel has struck targets in Syria during that country's five-year war but has not confirmed it had a role in Badreddine's death.
Badreddine became the group's top commander in 2008 after his predecessor, Imad Mughniyeh, was killed in a suspected Israeli car bomb assassination in Damascus.
The 55-year-old had escaped Arab and Western enemies for years.
He was one of five suspects accused by a UN tribunal of playing a role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He was sentenced to death in Kuwait for his role in a bombing there, before escaping when Iraq invaded the country in 1990.
Hezbollah's militant wing is listed as a terrorist organization by the EU and the United States and wields much power in Lebanon though its political wing.
cw/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)