BEIRUT (AP) — The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said Saturday that the explosion in Damascus that killed its top militant commander was caused by insurgent shelling and vowed to continue fighting alongside the Syrian government until the rebels are defeated.
Mustafa Badreddine was the highest-ranking Hezbollah militant to be killed since the group joined Syria's civil four years ago.
Hezbollah said the blast near the Damascus International Airport was caused by artillery shelling from "takfiri" groups, a term Hezbollah uses to refer to Sunni extremists.
The area on the southern edge of the Syrian capital is known to host positions of several militant groups, including al-Qaida's branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front.
A Lebanese politician with close links to the Syrian government told The Associated Press that Badreddine was killed Thursday night when a shell exploded near him outside a Hezbollah center near the airport. The politician spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal information about the incident.
He said Badreddine might have been killed by the pressure of the blast since his shrapnel wounds did not appear to be fatal.
Hezbollah and the Syrian army have a heavy presence around the airport, which includes a military base, the politician said. He said the area is subjected to regular shelling.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that according to his network of activists in the area, there has been no shelling in the airport area since Wednesday.
"Hezbollah must come forward with proof about the death of its commander," Abdurrahman said by telephone.
Hezbollah's statement said Badreddine's killing will only boost the group's "will and intention to continue fighting these criminal gangs until they are defeated."
It added that defeating insurgent groups in Syria was "the wish" of Badreddine, who was also known among the group's ranks as Zulfiqar.
Hezbollah's statements indicate it will continue to be deeply involved in the conflict next door, which has killed more than 250,000 people since 2011, including more than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters.
"It is the same battle against the American-Zionist project that the terrorists are spearheading," Hezbollah's statement said.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to back President Bashar Assad's government against militants trying to remove him from power.
The group announced Badreddine's death on Friday without saying when the attack occurred. It said at the time that an investigation has been launched into the cause of the blast.
The 55-year-old Badreddine had directed Hezbollah's operations in Syria since its fighters joined Assad's forces in 2012, the group's biggest-ever military intervention outside of Lebanon. Thousands of guerrillas fighting alongside Syria's military were crucial to tipping battles in the government's favor on multiple fronts, from the suburbs of Damascus to the northern province of Aleppo.
With Badreddine's death, Hezbollah is likely to rely on a younger generation of commanders, moving away from the veterans who came of age during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war or during Hezbollah's 18-year war against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000.
One possible successor, Ibrahim Aqil, is among the last major figures from that generation. A member of Hezbollah's highest military body, the Jihad Council, Aqil has been involved in the Syria fighting and is suspected in hostage-takings in the 1980s and a bombing campaign in Paris in 1986.
Asked if Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has named any replacement for Badreddine, the Lebanese politician said: "Not yet. The group is not in hurry."
He added that all senior Hezbollah officials have aides and deputies who can run affairs after them until a successor is named.