Top Hezbollah commander in Syria’s war Mustafa Amine Badreddine has been killed in Damascus.
Mustafa Amine Badreddine, 55, died in a large explosion near Damascus airport, the Lebanon-based militant group said in a statement on its al-Manar website.
He is charged with leading the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005.
Hezbollah supports Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria.
The US treasury, which imposed sanctions on Mustafa Amine Badreddine last July, said at the time he was “responsible for Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria since 2011, including the movement of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to Syria, in support of the Syrian regime”.
Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV had earlier said that Mustafa Amine Badreddine died in an Israeli airstrike. Israel has not commented on the claim.
Announcing Mustafa Amine Badreddine’s death, Hezbollah said in an initial statement: “He took part in most of the operations of the Islamic Resistance since 1982,” referring to the group’s military wing.
The second statement, on al-Manar’s website, said: “The investigation will work on determining the nature of the explosion and its causes and whether it was a result of an air, missile or artillery attack.
“We will announce further results of the investigations soon.”
Al-Manar said Mustafa Amine Badreddine would be buried in Beirut on May 13.
Born in 1961, Mustafa Amine Badreddine is believed to have been a senior figure in Hezbollah’s military wing.
He was a cousin and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, who was the military wing’s chief until his assassination by car bomb in Damascus in 2008.
According to one report, a Hezbollah member interrogated by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), described Mustafa Amine Badreddine as “more dangerous” than Imad Mughniyeh, who was “his teacher in terrorism”.
Mustafa Amine Badreddine and Imad Mughniyeh are alleged to have worked together on the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 personnel.
Syrian army has reached the outskirts of the ancient city of Palmyra, after driving back ISIS militants.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian government troops were now only 1.2 miles south of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed ruins.
ISIS militants seized Palmyra and the adjoining modern town in May 2015.
They subsequently destroyed two 2,000-year-old temples, an arch and funerary towers, drawing global outrage.
ISIS, which has also demolished several world-renowned pre-Islamic sites in neighboring Iraq, believes that such structures are idolatrous.
UNESCO has condemned the destruction as a war crime.
The Syrian Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground in Syria, told the AFP news agency that government forces were on March 23 only 1.2 miles from Palmyra’s southern outskirts and 3 miles from its western edge.
The governor of Homs province, Talal Barazi, confirmed the advance and said troops were now stationed on several hills overlooking the Greco-Roman ruins.
“There is continuous progress by the army from all directions,” he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Talal Barazi added that he expected “positive results” over the next few days.
Syrian government forces launched an offensive to retake Palmyra at the beginning of March, backed by heavy Russian air strikes.
Last week, the Russian military said its aircraft were flying up to 25 sorties a day over Palmyra to help liberate what President Vladimir Putin has described as a “pearl of world civilization”.
Palmyra is also situated in a strategically important area on the road between Damascus and the contested eastern city of Deir al-Zour.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made a surprise visit to Moscow on his first overseas trip since the civil war broke out in his country in 2011, state TV says.
During his visit, Bashar al-Assad held talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Russia launched air strikes in Syria last month against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant groups battling Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Bashar al-Assad said Russia’s involvement had stopped the spread of “terrorism” becoming “more widespread and harmful”.
For his part, President Vladimir Putin said the Syrian people had been “almost alone… resisting, fighting international terrorism for several years”.
“They had suffered serious losses, but recently have been achieving serious results in this fight,” he said.
The visit happened on October 20, but was not announced until October 21 – after Bashar al-Assad had returned to Damascus.
In comments that were videoed and published by the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin thanked Bashar al-Assad for coming despite the “dramatic situation” back home.
Vladimir Putin said Moscow had joined the fight against “international terrorism”, not just to help the Syrian people, but to better protect Russians too.
He said some 4,000 people from the former Soviet Union were believed to be fighting in Syria right now.
“We cannot permit them – once they get fighting experience there and ideological training – to turn up here in Russia,” he said.
Bashar al-Assad thanked Russia for “standing up for the unity of Syria and its independence”, and said its intervention had “prevented the events in Syria from developing along a more tragic scenario”.
Both presidents spoke of the need for a political solution to the crisis.
Vladimir Putin said Russia stood “ready to contribute” to any political process that could bring about a peaceful resolution.
President Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for what he described as “moderate” Syrian opposition forces.
The funds would help Syrians defend against forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said.
The aid would also counter Islamist militants such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), it added.
ISIS’s advance in neighboring Iraq has led some in Congress to press Barack Obama to take action.
Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for Syrian opposition forces
Tens of thousands of people have died and millions more have been displaced in three years of civil war in Syria, as rebels fight troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
“This funding request would build on the administration’s longstanding efforts to empower the moderate Syrian opposition, both civilian and armed,” the White House said.
It will also “enable the Department of Defense to increase our support to vetted elements of the armed opposition”.
The money will help stabilize areas under opposition control and counter terrorist threats, the White House said.
The rebels that would receive the funds would be vetted beforehand in order to alleviate concerns of equipment falling into the hands of militants hostile to the US and its allies, the White House said.
President Barack Obama has been under strong pressure from some members of Congress to increase assistance in the area, although it is unclear whether and when Congress would act on his request.
Last month Barack Obama hinted at increased help for the Syrian opposition in a speech at the military academy at West Point.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to be pressed by EU officials to take a stronger line on the crisis in Syria during a summit in St Petersburg.
EU member states want Russia to put pressure on its ally to withdraw heavy weapons from cities and comply fully with UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
Russia and China are also resisting US and European calls to condemn President Bashar al-Assad and seek his removal.
On Sunday, Bashar al-Assad denied his forces had any role in the Houla massacre.
In a televised address, President Bashar al-Assad told parliament the killing of more than 108 people in their homes, including 49 children, was an “ugly crime” that even “monsters” would not carry out.
Witnesses have blamed pro-government militiamen for the massacre, which has triggered international condemnation and led to several countries expelling Syrian diplomats in protest.
Bashar al-Assad said the only way to resolve the crisis was through political dialogue, and that “foreign meddling” was to blame for Syria’s divisions.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are among those attending Monday’s summit.
On Sunday, Vladimir Putin invited the EU leaders for dinner ahead of the talks at a lavish estate on the outskirts of the city.
Vladimir Putin will hold talks with Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy
European diplomats regard the meeting as a chance to renew ties with Vladimir Putin since his return to the presidency earlier this month.
The leaders are also expected to discuss trade and Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. Russia will also be looking to speed up moves towards visa free travel in Europe.
“We need to make sure that Russia is using fully its leverage in convincing the [Assad] regime to implement [the peace plan],” an EU official quoted by the Reuters news agency said.
“The Russian side has certainly not been very helpful in finding solutions in terms of a political way out.”
Moscow insists it is not protecting Bashar al-Assad but says his removal cannot be a precondition for political dialogue.
Baroness Catherine Ashton, who met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before Sunday’s dinner, said in a statement: “Russia’s role is crucial for the success of Annan’s plan.”
She said the EU wanted to “work closely with Russia to find a way to end the violence”.
The statement added that Baroness Catherine Ashton had spoken to Kofi Annan by telephone on Sunday and they had agreed that the crisis was at “a critical point”.
Analysts say pressure is growing on Moscow to concede that the initiative is stalled and to promote a compromise in which President Bashar al-Assad stands down to allow a transition of power.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday that she had “made it very clear” to Sergei Lavrov in a telephone conversation that the focus was shifting to a political transition.
“Assad’s departure does not have to be a precondition, but it should be an outcome so the people of Syria have a chance to express themselves,” she said during a visit to Stockholm.
Although the summit is not expected to produce any major breakthrough in relations between Russia and the EU, it is still important.
EU leaders will be able to reacquaint themselves with Vladimir Putin and it is also a chance to gauge what kind of relationship Moscow and Brussels are likely to have during his six-year presidency.