Lebanese militant leader killed in Israeli raid in Syria: Hezbollah

Lebanese militant leader killed in Israeli raid in Syria: Hezbollah

BEIRUT - Reuters
Lebanese militant leader killed in Israeli raid in Syria: Hezbollah

A civilian inspects a site that was hit by an Israeli strike, killing a Lebanese militant leader Samir Qantar, in the Damascus district of Jaramana, Syria December 20, 2015. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Lebanese Hezbollah militant leader Samir Qantar was killed in an Israeli air strike in Damascus early on Dec. 20, the Lebanese group and Syrian government sources said.

Israel welcomed his death, saying he had been preparing attacks on it from Syrian soil, but stopped short of confirming responsibility for the strike that killed him. 

Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim group, said Qantar was "martyred" in an Israeli raid on the residential district of Jaramana in the Syrian capital, but gave no details. 

Israel released Qantar, a Druze, in 2008 as part of a prisoner swap with Iranian-backed Hezbollah and he is since believed to have joined the group, which has sent hundreds of its members to fight alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

On his release, Qantar was welcomed as a hero in Beirut. 

Hezbollah's official media said Qantar would be buried on Monday in a Shi'ite cemetery in its main stronghold of Dahiya in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The party, which mourned him, also opened a condolences hall to receive the public. 

Syrian Information Minister Omran al Zubi said the  authorities were investigating the attack but pointed the finger towards Israel, though he fell short of blaming it. 

"The party that gains most from the assassination of Qantar is the Zionist enemy whom we have long known for these cowardly attacks," Zubi told Hezbollah's Manar television station. 

Official Syrian media said an Israeli aerial strike hit a six-storey residential building in the Jaramana district. 

"I am not confirming or denying anything to do with this matter," Israeli Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Gallant told Israel Radio, adding: "It is good that people like Samir Qantar will not be part of our world." 

Qantar was jailed in Israel for his part in a 1979 raid that killed four people, including a girl he was convicted of bludgeoning. 

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the war there almost five years ago, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for Hezbollah, Israel's long-time foe in neighbouring Lebanon. 

After his release, Qantar kept a low public profile and it was not immediately clear what role Qantar, born in 1962, played in the fighting in Syria. 

Syrian state media said Qantar was involved in a major offensive launched earlier this year by the Syrian army and its allies near the Syrian Golan Heights in Quneitra near the Israeli border against rebels fighting to topple Assad. 

Rebels in southern Syria also said Qantar was present in battles this year to defend a Syrian air base near the Druze majority city of Sweida close to the border with Jordan that rebels sought to capture. 

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked accused Qantar of overseeing covert Hezbollah entrenchment on the Syrian Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking northeastern Israel. 

"He set up a broad terror network on the Golan, and it is good that he returned his soul to his creator," Shaked told Israel's Army Radio, without elaborating on any Israeli role. 

Yaakov Amidror, Israel's former national security adviser, predicted Hezbollah would seek to exact "small revenge" for Qantar's killing, but said Hezbollah, like Iran, was likely too busy fighting in Syria to afford a new front with Israel. 

"It would not be in their interest, and if they did so, they would have a big problem," Amidror said, alluding to Israel's threats to respond to any major Hezbollah attack with strikes in Lebanon. 

Syrian government loyalists said the explosions that killed Qantar were an Israeli strike. 

The National Defence Forces in Jaramana, part of a nationwide grouping of loyalist Syrian militias under the umbrella of the army, mourned Qantar on its Facebook page. 

"Two Israeli warplanes carried out the raid which targeted the building in Jaramana and struck the designated place with four long-range missiles," the NDF in Jaramana Facebook page said. Jaramana is a bastion of government support and is the home of many of Syria's Druze minority as well as Christians. 

In January, an Israeli strike in Syria killed six members of Hezbollah, including a commander and the son of the group's late military leader Imad Moughniyah near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.