By Ellen Knickmeyer and Samuel Sockol
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
CAIRO, Aug. 4 -- A Syrian general shot to death at a beach resort over the weekend was a top overseer of his country's weapons shipments to Hezbollah, according to opposition Web sites and Arab and Israeli news media.
Syria by late Monday had issued no reaction to widespread reports of the assassination of Brig. Gen. Mohammed Suleiman near the Syrian port city of Tartous on Friday night.
Maher al-Assad, head of Syria's Republican Guards and a brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, attended Suleiman's funeral Sunday, the Reuters news agency said, citing unidentified sources.
The Syrian president is on a state visit to Iran. His government enforces rigid secrecy about security matters.
The Free Syria Web site of Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president now living in exile, said a sniper on a yacht shot Suleiman. The Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper said he was struck by four bullets fired from the direction of the sea.
Suleiman, 49, was known to have been a top security official, a friend to Syria's president and his brothers since their youth, and a former schoolmate of at least one of the brothers.
Israel's Haaretz newspaper said Israeli officials believed Suleiman had been in charge of shipping Iranian and Syrian weapons to the armed Lebanese movement Hezbollah, including long-range rockets used in attacks on Israel.
Haaretz did not identify its sources. Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth daily said the slain man also had been in charge of Syria's alleged nuclear program. In September, Israeli warplanes destroyed what U.S. officials described as a clandestine nuclear site in Syria's eastern desert.
Asked whether Israel was responsible for the reported assassination, Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said, "The Israeli government has neither any direct knowledge nor any comment on this incident."
A February bombing in Damascus killed Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah. Israel denied Hezbollah accusations of responsibility for the assassination.
Despite their enmity, Israel and Syria this year confirmed they were conducting indirect talks through Turkey on a possible peace deal, based on the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
Olmert and other Israeli officials in recent weeks have stressed weapons smuggling by Syria to Hezbollah as a major Israeli concern.
Sockol reported from Jerusalem.