BEIRUT, Lebanon - A senior Hezbollah commander was slain outside his home, the Lebanese Shiite group reported Wednesday, marking a further escalation in a shadowy series of attacks and bombings that risk drawing Lebanon deeper into the region's simmering sectarian strife.
The extremist Iranian-backed movement blamed Israel and warned it would suffer the consequences. Israel denied it was responsible.
But at a time when many in the region fear the consequences of warming ties between the West and Iran, and as Syria's government gains ground against rebels with Hezbollah's help, almost anyone could be responsible, analysts said.
"There are so many players around who could be involved in this," said Elie Hindy, assistant professor for international affairs at Lebanon's Notre Dame University. "Hezbollah has created so many enemies around it - regional enemies, Islamist enemies, Israeli enemies - and that does not include invisible possibilities."
According to a brief statement issued by Hezbollah, veteran commander Hassan al-Laqees was shot late Tuesday in Hadath, a mixed Christian-Shiite neighborhood six miles south of Beirut, as he returned from work near midnight. Lebanon's Daily Star reported he was shot five times in the head and neck in his car outside his home by at least one unidentified gunman.
"Israel automatically stands accused of responsibility," the Hezbollah statement said, warning that Israel will bear "all consequences of this heinous crime."
Although Israel usually does not comment on such allegations against it, in this instance the accusation brought a swift response.
"Israel has nothing to do with this incident," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Associated Press.
Many Lebanese said the killing was more likely linked to the country's soaring sectarian tensions, which have been aggravated by the war in Syria and a shift in the region's balance of power in favor of Hezbollah's sponsor, Iran.
"No one believes it was Israel," said a Hezbollah supporter who lives in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut. The movement is accusing Israel "because it wants to avoid Sunni-Shiite discord," he said.
A previously unknown Sunni group calling itself Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek Brigade claimed responsibility in a Twitter post, though neither its claim nor its existence could be verified.
Hezbollah's dispatch of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has stirred resentment among Lebanese Sunnis, many of whom are increasingly falling under the influence of extremists.