Shaam News Network via AP video, Associated Press
BEIRUT — A Hezbollah commander and several fighters have been killed inside Syria, a Lebanese security official said Tuesday, a development that could stoke already soaring tensions over the Lebanese militant group's role in the civil war next door.
Hezbollah's reputation has taken a beating over its support for the Syrian regime, but any sign that the group's fighters are taking part in the battle raises fears that the conflict could expand into a wider fight engulfing the region.
Hezbollah has stood by Syrian President Bashar Assad since the uprising began 18 months ago, even after the group supported revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain.
Assad's fall would be a dire scenario for Hezbollah. Any new regime led by Syria's majority Sunni Muslims would likely be far less friendly — or even outright hostile — to Shiite Muslim Hezbollah. Iran remains the group's most important patron, but Syria is a crucial supply route. Without it, Hezbollah will struggle to get money and weapons as easily.
The Syrian uprising has left Assad deeply isolated — making his remaining allies such as Iran and Russia all the more important. At last week's gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, dozens of nations excoriated the Assad regime for its role in a conflict that activists estimate has killed at least 30,000 Syrians.
It was not immediately clear how the Hezbollah militants were killed or whether they had been fighting alongside the Syrian army. But Hezbollah's newspaper al-Intiqad said Hezbollah commander Ali Hussein Nassif, who is also known as Abu Abbas, was killed "while performing his jihadi duties." It did not say when or where he was killed.
A Lebanese security official said Nassif was killed in Syria and his body was returned to Lebanon through the Masnaa border crossing on Sunday. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, the official said the bodies of several other Hezbollah fighters have been brought back to Lebanon in recent days.
Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi on Tuesday confirmed the deaths of the Hezbollah members but said he had no further information on where or how Nassif was killed. He declined further comment.
The Syrian opposition has long accused the group of helping the Syrian leadership crack down on the uprising — a claim the group has repeatedly denied. Hezbollah has to tread a careful path with its support for the regime, mindful that many of its supporters in Lebanon dread getting sucked into the conflict.
Nassif's funeral, which was held in the eastern town of Budai, near Baalbek, was attended by top Hezbollah officials including the head of the judicial council and the political bureau, an indication of Nassif's high prestige.
On Tuesday, Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV showed the funerals of at least two other Hezbollah members it said were killed while performing their "jihadi duty." Both funerals were attended by Hezbollah officials and commanders.
The coffins of the dead were draped with Hezbollah's yellow flags and carried by militants in black uniforms and red berets. Hundreds of people marched in the funeral.
Samer al-Homsi, an activist in Syria's central Homs province, which borders Lebanon, said Nassif was killed Saturday when a roadside bomb went off as the car he was in passed just outside the town of Qusair. He said Nassif and several other people were killed in the blast.
"His job was to coordinate with Syrian security agencies," al-Homsi said via Skype.
He added that the rebels detonated the bomb "without knowing" that the target was a Hezbollah official. "We knew he was a Hezbollah official after it was announced by the group in Lebanon," he said. Al-Homsi's account could not be independently verified.
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